BALTIMORE — When pressed for an answer, Jackie Bradley Jr. will say that the diving catch he made to rob Tyler Flowers of an extra-base hit at Fenway Park in 2014 was the best play of his professional career.
He was several feet in the air with his left arm extended when the ball landed in his glove. Bradley was Superman without a cape for a few seconds that day.
But the play Bradley made on Wednesday night at Camden Yards has to be in contention for the top spot, if only because of what was at stake.
The Red Sox and Orioles were tied 1-1 in the 11th inning when Trey Mancini hit a Ryan Brasier fastball high in the air to left center field.
If the ball landed in the bullpen, the Sox lose on a night Chris Sale went eight innings and struck out 14 without a walk. They would have failed to reach .500 for the first time this season and dropped a series against one of the worst teams in baseball.
The ball would have landed in the bullpen, too. But Bradley chased it down, timing his steps so that he would reach the seven-foot fence when the ball crossed over it.
Bradley thought the whole time he could make the play.
“Right off the bat,” he said. “The trajectory of it . . . his previous at-bat, he hit another hard line drive off the right-center field wall. I knew this one; the angle of it coming off the bat was a little bit higher. But I didn’t think it was as hard. I was able to get back and track it.”
Bradley jumped and used his right arm to get up over the wall then twisted his body so he could backhand the ball with his glove. The ball struck the palm of his glove but rolled up securely into the webbing.
“That’s the best catch I’ve seen,” said Brasier, who twisted his right ankle when he threw the pitch and turned around just in time. “I don’t know what else to say.”
Dave O’Brien found the words calling the play for NESN.
“It was gone, but he caught it!” O’Brien said. “A brilliant play.”
Watching from the stands, having driven up from Virginia, Jackie Bradley Sr. stood with his hands on his hips in disbelief.
Mancini, in a great display of sportsmanship, tipped his helmet toward Bradley.
“I didn’t get my hopes up too much. I’ve hit too many balls to center that I thought were hits and Jackie’s playing center that he comes down with,” Mancini said
“I didn’t want to get too excited until it went over the fence. It was an amazing catch. I mean, what else can you say?”
The Red Sox players stood on the top step of the dugout and applauded. Steve Pearce kept pointing out to center as rookie Michael Chavis hopped up and down.
“Unreal,” thought manager Alex Cora.
Even the Orioles fans stood and applauded. Because how could they not?
Bradley was probably the least impressed person in the ballpark. He came down off the fence, flipped the ball out of his glove to his bare hand and casually blew a bubble with his gum before throwing it back in.
Bradley has made so many five-star catches that he’s not easily impressed. He robbed Oakland’s Ryon Healy of a walk-off homer in 2017 with a leaping grab that saved Craig Kimbrel from a loss.
That play, while stellar, was pedestrian in the Bradley pantheon compared to Wednesday. But Bradley passed on saying whether it was his best.
“I don’t know. I’m going to let y’all rank it for me,” he said.
But Bradley did acknowledge the importance of the moment.
“Big-time circumstances,” he said. “If I don’t catch it, we go home. I was able to extend the game a little bit longer in order for us to get another point.”
Bradley was in the lineup despite a .147 batting average for just that reason. Preventing runs is just as important as scoring them.
“We know the value,” Cora said. “We know what be brings defensively every night. Regardless of where he’s at offensively, that shows up. He saved the game with that play.
“The things that he does in the outfield, it’s a plus for what we do. That’s why we have to be patient.”
The game continued and poor Mancini was standing in right field when Andrew Benintendi hit a home run over his head to give the Sox the lead. They held on for the win their eight in the last 10 games.
Bradley was 0 for 4 with a walk, his batting average dropping even more. He’s a streaky hitter way overdue for an offensive surge.
The Sox will wait because his glove makes a difference. It’s a good bet Bradley will be in center field behind Eduardo Rodriguez on Friday night against Seattle.
“I’m glad he’s on my team,” Brasier said.