BRADENTON, Fla. — Jackie Bradley Jr. has made a habit of transforming the epic into routine, making dozens if not hundreds of exceptional, ooh-and-ahh-inspiring catches in his career. But thanks to a first-inning grab in a split-squad spring training game Saturday against the Pirates, Bradley pronounced that his highlight reel of center-field wizardry has a new opus.
“It’s probably the most amazing play I’ve ever made,” said Bradley.
With two outs in the bottom of the first inning of a split-squad spring training game against the Pirates, Josh Bell hit a rocket to straightaway center field. Bradley initially broke in, but the ball had more carry than he’d anticipated. Bradley tried to stop and change directions, but the terrain did not cooperate.
“I just uprooted earth with these strong tree-trunk legs,” said Bradley, who slipped as the grass and dirt gave way beneath his cleat.
He sprang up and started running back, on what seemed to be the early paces of a chase of a ball that would roll to the fence. But Bradley’s internal GPS quickly recalculated his route. Though he’d lost the flight of the ball, his tracking instincts allowed him to sprint blind to the spot where the ball was carrying.
“A lot of people thought I was just going to go ahead and go to the fence. . . . I envisioned where I thought it could possibly be, but after I went down, I didn’t even turn around to look at it,” said Bradley. “I just put my head down and tried to get my bearings back under me.”
Yet because of the need to make up ground, he couldn’t — as he typically does — turn his head at the last instant to look the ball into his glove. Just as his sprint had been with his back to the plate, so, too, was he facing the centerfield fence when he stretched and extended his glove across his body to spear the ball.
“I literally threw my glove where I thought it would be, and voila,” said Bradley, who also went 1-for-3 with a double. “That’s the first time I’ve ever caught a ball without seeing it I think.”
The crowd at LECOM Park may not have recognized all the components of what Bradley did, but the remarkable demonstration of athleticism and anticipation nonetheless drew one of the more sustained ovations imaginable for a visiting player in a spring training game.
“That,” Bradley said of the ovation, “was sick.”
It was also, in the eyes of split squad manager Billy McMillon, deserved. Yet as remarkable as the catch was, McMillon — who managed Bradley in High-A Salem in 2012 — held off on the notion that it was a singularly amazing event.
“I can’t describe [the catch]. His talent allows him to do things that the rest of us just marvel at. I can’t put any words for how incredible that catch was,” said McMillon. “[But] if anyone has seen him play, you’re not amazed anymore. It’s just Jackie being Jackie. He’s among the best that I’ve ever seen.”