It takes one to know one?
Kevin Kiermaier of the Rays is a fantastic center fielder, a two-time Gold Glove winner who combines precise routes with tremendous speed and fearlessness to make fantastic plays on a regular basis.
Yet on Friday night at Fenway Park, Kiermaier was awestruck by a play made by his counterpart, Jackie Bradley Jr. In the top of the third inning of the Red Sox’ 7-3 victory, another Rays outfielder, Tommy Pham, ripped a liner over Bradley’s head and toward the center field wall, just to the right of the joint of the Green Monster and center.
Bradley raced back, leaped off his left leg on the edge of the warning track, extended to haul in the ball, landed in the middle of the warning track, then tumbled onto the dirt to slow his momentum before crashing into the wall. It was a remarkable display of body control, both to haul in the ball and to avoid injury.
“Tommy crushed it towards the left-center field gap. Had to get on my high horse to get to it. I think the most difficult part was figuring out which leg I was going to go off of, because I was running at full speed,” explained Bradley. “If you go back and look at it, after I made the catch, there was a slight second where I looked to see where I was and I knew that my best opportunity to get out of there unscathed was to get down to the ground so I peeked back, and I just tried to barrel-roll because if I tried to catch myself, I probably would have run into the wall full speed.”
The Rays offered a reaction mixed with respect and disbelief. Pham walked backward to the Rays dugout so he could watch the replay on the scoreboard and try to make sense of the act of thievery that had transpired.
Kiermaier, meanwhile, took to Twitter to express his respect for Bradley’s acrobatics.
That tip of the cap seemed even more apt on Friday given a similar play on which Kiermaier could not track down a gapper to left-center. With two on and two outs in the first inning, Xander Bogaerts stayed on a 99 m.p.h. fastball from Rays opener Ryan Stanek and drilled it to the track in left-center. It fell just beyond Kiermaier for a two-run triple.
Yet while Kiermaier didn’t make the play, Bradley suggested that his Tampa Bay counterpart’s elite defensive skills were nonetheless evident in the mere fact that he nearly tracked it down – while offering insight into the tremendous number of variables that a center fielder processes on a given play.
“[Kiermaier] was in the right-center field gap. The pitch that Bogie hit was off the plate away,” Bradley accurately observed. “For him to even get to the left-center field gap is very difficult. As an outfielder, you’re lined up behind the pitcher. You see the location. You see as the pitch is delivered that it’s heading towards the outside of the plate. Great instinctual players like Kiermaier are going to naturally go to his left because not many people are going to have success pulling the outside pitch. For Bogie to get around that and hit it towards the gap was pretty remarkable. [Kiermaier] took off and kind of put his head down, too, to get to a spot faster.”
The fact Kiermaier was in position to make the play pointed to his remarkable range and makeup speed. Yet he seemed to pull up at the end, perhaps out of concern for the same sort of bone-shaking collision with the wall that Bradley has proven so adept at avoiding. Yet Bradley had a different hypothesis about why his decorated defensive counterpart couldn’t pull in the ball at the end.
“I believe there was a little twilight at that particular time. That might have made it a little difficult for him to pick it up,” said Bradley. “He got there. He got there. It just kind of sailed over his head.”
Such detailed breakdowns of the variables involved in trying to track down a fly ball places a spotlight on the mutual appreciation that great outfielders have for their counterparts. For Bradley, there is a thrill involved in covering the same lawn as Kiermaier.
“I definitely enjoy [watching other center fielders]. You see who’s great and you see the things that you do and the things that they do, a lot of it correlates. That’s how you prepare, the jumps you get – we’re all unique in our own different way as well. I think that’s pretty cool to see the differences,” said Bradley. “I know [Kiermaier] is a great player and he has the Gold Glove. Any time somebody has a Gold Glove, he obviously deserved it. I just want to be able to join the company.”