Short-season Single-A Aberdeen manager Matt Merullo thinks the stage got a little too big, a little too quickly for hometown catcher Alex Murphy.
During a red-hot June, the first month of the IronBirds' season, Murphy batted .293 with two home runs and six RBIs in 16 games. So, Merullo moved him into the heart of Aberdeen's lineup.
Now Murphy, a graduate of Calvert Hall who grew up near Frederick, was batting just .219 in 17 games this month through Wednesday, and he admits to feeling a little out of place in the cleanup role.
"I don't think he's ever struggled before, and I think he's having a really hard time with it right now," Merullo said about Murphy on Tuesday. "I think he's getting humbled. There's some readjustment that's going on right now. It hasn't been easy for him."
Murphy's role on the IronBirds is a dilemma for Merullo. The catcher is talented, but he's just 19 years old and still was sitting in a Calvert Hall classroom 15 months ago.
And dozens of friends, family, and occasionally even former teachers, cheer for Murphy's every plate appearance. Sometimes, he's distracted by the allure of making the major leagues in the organization he grew up loving.
"We haven't really been playing too well as a team, and I caught myself trying to do too much and not relaxing at the plate," Murphy said. "I need to get back to the approach I got started with the first couple weeks of the season."
But despite a disappointing July, Murphy said he has been living his childhood dream.
Like many, he wished to someday join the Orioles organization, but it took until he earned Gatorade Maryland Player of the Year honors as a high school senior that he realized he had a legitimate shot at playing baseball professionally.
"You never really know, because you don't want to take anything for granted," he said. "You don't want to think you're better than you are. You plan to go to college, but if pro ball comes and steps in, then you go that route."
Murphy had committed to Wake Forest, but Orioles scout Dean Albany, along with representatives from four other major league clubs, approached the catcher about his interest in signing.
The Orioles selected him in the sixth round of last year's draft — the 189th overall selection — which accompanied a $218,500 slot bonus. At the time, it made him Calvert Hall's highest-ever draft pick, and it was just enough to convince Murphy to forgo college.
That he could join the Orioles' organization didn't hurt, either. Murphy inked his contract hours after the draft ended.
"I told them where my numbers were and where they could take me [in the draft] that would be the latest I would sign," Murphy said. "They took me, and I couldn't have signed faster."
But Murphy's rise through the professional ranks hasn't come nearly as quickly.
After hitting .231 in 31 games with the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Orioles last year, he started this season in extended spring training. An injury at Low-A Delmarva necessitated a brief stint for Murphy with the Shorebirds, but he then was moved to Aberdeen.
Merullo said he believes the mental burden from being thrust into a key hitting position has affected Murphy's defense as the catcher has labored to build a proper rapport with the pitching staff and experienced difficulty calling games.
"It's not easy," Merullo said. "It's all new pitchers, all different backgrounds. He's got a full plate, a lot to learn about the people he's working with as a catcher and what their repertoire is, and how to apply that into games.
"He's put some pressure on himself. It was only natural."
From an offensive standpoint, Murphy has demonstrated some encouraging signs. On Tuesday, he went 3-for-5 with two RBIs, and he drove in another run Wednesday — both while batting cleanup.
After being crowned Player of the Game on Tuesday at Ripken Stadium, Murphy walked off the diamond to loud applause and waved to the fans who had stayed through his postgame interview.
Struggling or not, Murphy enjoys being the hometown kid.
"You couldn't ask for a better team to play with, all the way down through this minor league system," he said. "Playing at home, everyone's rooting for you. I grew up an Orioles fan, so you can't beat it."
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