ANAHEIM, Calif. — It was the kind of play that was still being talked about a day later.
The Red Sox had a 4-2 lead on the Los Angeles Angels in the ninth inning on Friday night and called in closer Koji Uehara. His third pitch was a splitter that stayed up in the strike zone and Howie Kendrick mashed it.
The ball was shot toward center field for what was surely a double or more given Kendrick’s speed.
Center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr., inserted into the game for defensive purposes in the eighth inning, turned his back on the ball and ran. As he approached the warning track, Bradley looked back and raised his glove high over his head while leaping.
He caught the ball, secured it in his glove, and crashed into the wall.
“Wow,” Uehara said in English after the game. “Great catch.”
Bradley, who has made a habit of outstanding plays, didn’t seem particularly impressed by what he did.
“It was well hit. I immediately broke and took my eyes off it. I tried to get the fastest three steps in before looking back to see if I could handle it,” he said.
Bradley also took a hit away from Mike Trout in the eighth inning when he raced in and made a catch on a line drive.
Traditional and advanced defensive statistics suggest Bradley is the best defensive center fielder in baseball.
Going into Saturday’s games, Bradley had 13 assists, six more than any other center fielder. He also had started eight double plays and not been charged with an error.
Advanced metrics really tell the story. Bradley had saved 16 runs based on the calculations by The Fielding Bible. His UZR, a statistic that measures range, was 16.3, tops among center fielders. Billy Hamilton of the Reds was second at 14.5 and no other player was above 6.2.
“His reads off the bat are better than any outfielder I’ve ever seen,” manager John Farrell said. “Seemingly he’s on the move as the ball’s going through the hitting zone, even before contact is made. There are a lot of other outfielders who are faster than him in the league and yet he has the most range of anybody in the game.”
But Bradley was back on the bench to start Saturday night’s game as utility player Brock Holt started in center field. It was the fourth time in five games Bradley was not in the starting lineup.
And there he was in the ninth inning again, once again robbing Kendrick. The score was tied with one out and Kendrick laced a liner into the right-center alley. Bradley raced over and, being too close to dive, took the ball off his shoetops before hitting the turf.
An 0-for-27 slump had dropped Bradley’s batting average to .216 and his on-base percentage to .288. Of the 151 qualified hitters in the majors, Bradley was 149th in OPS at .584.
Bradley hit .189 with a .617 OPS in 37 games last season.
Farrell said Bradley has been out of the lineup so he can work on his hitting with coaches Greg Colbrunn and Victor Rodriguez . The Sox are planning to return him to the lineup on a regular basis soon.
“We’re confident and we trust that through the early work . . . that will carry over onto the field. We feel like there’s a better hitter in there from a consistency standpoint,” Farrell said. “Whatever the average ultimately becomes, time will tell.”
Because Bradley hit .297 with an .876 OPS in the minors, the Red Sox are confident he will find a way to be a contributing player at the plate.
“That’s one of the reasons why he moved to the big leagues so quick. He’s been a consistent performer. And yet the first time he’s been challenged, on two occasions, has been at this level,” Farrell said. “That’s up to all of us involved to make the necessary adjustments.”
Farrell said Bradley would get ample playing time over the final 46 games of the season.
“We need it to increase,” he said. “Yet there’s a stretch of time here we’re addressing some things. He’s aware of the approach. Sat down and met with him [Friday] on what the thought is. I don’t want him to be questioning his abilities or where does he stand.
“We’ve talked about the players that we’re trying to get as best and long a read as we can. Jackie’s one of them. That’s going to require consistent playing time as we go forward.”
The question for the Red Sox is whether Bradley can produce enough at the plate to merit being a starter. The other option would be putting together a lineup where it doesn’t matter as much.
Bradley plans on deciding that question himself.
“I haven’t lost any confidence,” he said. “I’ve always hit in my career and I will here. I’ll figure it out.”
Mike Napoli was drafted by the Angels in 2000 and spent 11 seasons in the organization before he was traded to the Blue Jays in 2011. He has tried to make them regret it every since.
Napoli was 1 for 3 with a walk and a solo home run on Friday. Through Friday, he has hit .350 with a 1.194 OPS in 40 career games against the Angels. Napoli had 14 home runs, 25 walks and 27 RBIs in those games.
In 21 games at Angel Stadium against the Angels, Napoli had hit .377 with an outrageous 1.335 OPS. Friday was his 11th home run against the Angels at the ballpark.
“I’m not sure what it is. But you get traded away and a team wants to go in a different direction, that motivates you,” Napoli said.
The trade benefited Napoli, who has been an everyday player since after playing only sporadically for the Angels. Napoli was a catcher with Los Angeles and never fully gained the trust of manager Mike Scioscia.
Napoli said there weren’t necessarily hard feelings when he left, but he admits to enjoying his success against the Angels since.
“I think I’ve done OK for myself,” he said.
Butler to debut
Dan Butler, who was called up on Aug. 2, will make his first start on Sunday and catch Rubby De La Rosa. The 27-year-old was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2009 after playing part-time at the University of Arizona.
“We felt coming out of spring training if the need were to arise he’d be a guy we’d call upon,” Farrell said. “He’s always shown, either in those settings in spring training or in Triple A the last two years, that he’s more than capable of handling a big-league staff and running a big-league game with his game calling. He’ll get that first opportunity.”
Butler has hit .254 over parts of six seasons in the minors, but is strong enough defensively to become a backup with the Red Sox or another team down the road.
Farrell respects the path Butler has taken.
“Not only can players be missed with the evaluation of talent or tools. But you never know what truly is inside a guy. The determination, the work ethic, [and] the willingness to compete, he has demonstrated those,” the manager said.
Three Lowell stars
Single A Lowell had three players selected for the New York-Penn League All-Star Game on Aug. 19 in Brooklyn.
Outfielder Danny Mars, a sixth-round draft pick in June, was named as a starter. He is hitting .354.
Shortstop Mauricio Dubon was selected as a reserve. A native of Honduras, he came to the United States at the age of 15 and was eligible for the 2013 draft. He was selected in the 26th round and this season has hit .290 with 23 RBIs.
Spinners closer Carlos Pinales also made the team. He has a 3.42 ERA with 12 saves in 13 opportunities.
Craig gets started
Outfielder Allen Craig, on the disabled list with a sprained left foot, has started swinging at balls off a tee. Craig is not yet running on the field but is working on a treadmill . . . The band 5 Seconds Of Summer toured Fenway Park on Saturday. The Australian group played three nights at Gillette Stadium with One Direction this week. Ask your teenage daughter, they’re a big deal.Peter Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.