Web gems and then some: The best defensive plays we ever saw

This was supposed to be opening week, the time when MLB fans everywhere look forward to making a season’s worth of memories. Since we won’t have games to get excited about for a while, we thought it would be fun to take a walk down memory lane by reliving some of our favorite baseball moments.

In the fourth installment of our weeklong series focusing on a different baseball theme each day, we asked our MLB reporters to tell us about the best defensive plays they ever saw, with only one rule: They had to have seen it in person.

Jump to …
Forgotten gem | Alomar’s artistry
Gimme a break | Kirby rises to occasion
Simmons does unthinkable | Vizquel’s heartbreaker
Edmonds amazes | Brinson’s beauty


Tim Kurkjian: Endy’s forgotten gem

New York Mets left fielder Endy Chavez against the Cardinals in Game 7 of the 2006 National League Championship Series. For all of baseball’s unforgettable moments in the postseason, there haven’t been as many brilliant defensive plays as you might think. One of the best ever is one that will never get proper recognition.

The Mets and St. Louis Cardinals were tied 1-1 in the sixth inning when Scott Rolen hit a fly ball to deep left field. Chavez always wore one of the biggest gloves I have ever seen, bigger than that of Yoenis Cespedes, almost as big as Brett Butler’s, even bigger than the glove of pitcher Greg Maddux. Chavez leaped, slammed into the left-field fence, reached a good foot above it and caught the ball.

“My glove almost fell off. I didn’t even know if I had caught the ball,” Chavez said. “Then I saw the ball in my glove and said, ‘Oh, here it is.”’

The catch was somewhat lost in history because Yadier Molina hit a two-run homer in the top of the ninth for a 3-1 lead, and with two out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, Carlos Beltran struck out looking at a curveball by Adam Wainwright, ending the Mets’ season.


Buster Olney: Alomar’s amazing artistry

One hundred forty-two voters chose to not include Roberto Alomar on their ballots the first time he was eligible for Hall of Fame induction, driving his vote percentage below the necessary 75% threshold for election. This was utterly shocking to me after hearing Alomar’s peers rave for years about his incredible defensive skill, as well as his imagination for what was possible. Like Wayne Gretzky and Magic Johnson, he seemed to have an understanding of where everyone on the field was. With his balletic inspiration, Alomar changed the way defense was played for generations of middle infielders who followed him.

In a game between the Orioles and Red Sox at Camden Yards in 1996, Boston’s John Valentin rounded third base on a ball hit into the right-field corner, and Alomar, set up for a relay along the right-field foul line, caught the throw with his body aligned to rifle homeward. But midturn, Alomar fired all the way across the infield to third base, where Valentin had taken a wide turn. Valentin had no chance to get back to the bag, and he looked stunned as he was tagged out. It was among the many defensive alternatives that Alomar seemed to discover regularly.



David Schoenfield: You can top this? Gimme a break

This isn’t just the best defensive play I’ve ever seen in person — it’s the best defensive play of all time. That’s right. Forget Willie Mays’ catch in the 1954 World Series. Forget Ozzie Smith’s bare-handed grab of that bad-hop ground ball. This is it. Buck Martinez for the Blue Jays on July 9, 1985. Don’t even argue about this because you’ll lose.

Here’s the play:

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Buck Martinez holds on to the ball in a collision that breaks his leg, then while still on the ground, tags out another runner for a double play.

Let’s run down what happened here:

1. Jesse Barfield, who had one of the best arms of all time, throws an absolute howitzer from right field.

2. Phil Bradley, a former starting quarterback at Missouri, destroys Martinez in the collision at home plate. Martinez breaks his leg but manages to hold on to the ball.

3. Stormin’ Gorman Thomas keeps on chugging around the bases.

4. Martinez, who can’t get up because HE BROKE HIS LEG, throws wildly to third base. Thomas turns for home.

5. For some reason, George Bell (not pictured in the video because we needed to see the dude in the green shirt) is actually backing up the play and throws home.

6. Remember, MARTINEZ CAN’T GET UP BECAUSE HE HAS A BROKEN LEG. Bell’s throw somehow finds Martinez’s glove.

7. I have no idea what Thomas was thinking, but he somehow fails to avoid the tag. Martinez gets his second out at home plate, is carted off the field and misses the rest of the season.


Tim Keown: Kirby rises to the occasion

Kirby Puckett, 1991 World Series, Game 6, third inning. Amid the cacophony of the Metrodome — imagine the sound of 50,000 frightened macaws in a closet — Ron Gant of the Atlanta Braves hit a drive to left-center. Puckett, the Minnesota Twins’ center fielder, ran farther and faster than he seemed capable of doing and jumped higher than seemed possible. At the peak of his leap, his glove smacked against the Plexiglas as the ball landed inside it.

As Puckett fired the ball back toward first base to attempt to double up Terry Pendleton, Gant rounded first base and veered toward the dugout without taking his eyes off Puckett. He wasn’t mad or even frustrated; he, like the rest of us, was trying to process what he’d just seen. I’m sure I’ve seen better plays — Kevin Mitchell caught a ball bare-handed — but the combination of artistry and the importance of the moment makes this one hard to beat.


Sam Miller: Simmons does the unthinkable

Defense is hard enough to precisely measure in the present, in front of us and with modern technology, let alone decades after the fact. As such, I wouldn’t say definitively that Andrelton Simmons is the greatest defender of all time, but I believe it’s true, and I watch him with the joy of believing that’s what I’m seeing. At least once every few games, he does something with his body that is worth rewinding and rewatching, and at least weekly, he makes a play that is impossible for all but maybe a half-dozen other humans on the planet.

Out of literally hundreds of Simmons highlights, this is probably my favorite, not because it’s especially explosive, flashy, physical or imaginative — all qualities he has — but because of how surprised the baserunner, the broadcaster and Simmons’ third baseman are that he made the play. That, to me, is the most persuasive endorsement of a defensive play.

On TV, to us amateurs, the easy can look hard, and the hard can look easy. But the baserunner here knows baseball very well, the play was 10 feet away from him, and he totally ruled out Simmons’ getting to that ball. The Angels broadcaster knows baseball very well, knows Simmons very well, and he misread what Simmons would attempt to do on that ball. Finally, the third baseman knows baseball very well and, more than anybody in the world, needs to know Simmons’ range because they share the same coverage area. But when Simmons actually got to the ball, the third baseman was standing 8 feet away from the bag, totally unprepared for what Simmons did.

This play doesn’t have the visual punch of a player diving or leaping over the wall. But it’s clear from the reactions of the people around him that what Simmons did here even without leaving his feet was essentially unthinkable.


Alden Gonzalez: Vizquel with a heartbreaker

The height of my baseball fandom probably came in 1997, when the Florida Marlins reached the World Series, and the entire city of Miami — suddenly exuberant in a time before constant betrayals from club ownership — rallied behind its baseball team in a way that still moves me. The Marlins played the Cleveland Indians in a World Series that reached the maximum seven games, with each team alternating victories until a thrilling finale.

I attended Game 6 hoping to see the Marlins clinch. I sat beyond the center-field batter’s eye. In the bottom of the sixth, with two out and two runners in scoring position, I had a great view of an Omar Vizquel play that put my heart in my throat. Charles Johnson, a notoriously slow-footed catcher, hit a hard grounder that should have trickled into left field and cut the Marlins’ deficit to one. But Vizquel dove full extension, quickly rose to his feet and threw Johnson out at first base from shallow left field. I was crushed — but felt a lot better the following night, when the Marlins finished the job. (Side note: I still can’t believe those mid-to-late-’90s Indians teams never won it all.)


Dan Mullen: Edmonds wows even himself

One of the best things about great defensive plays is that you never really know when you are about to see the one you’ll be writing about in a list such as this. My pick for best game came in Game 5 of an already thrilling World Series. My best home run choice was from the eighth inning of a tense, tied NLCS game. My favorite prospect tale was of seeing a No. 1 overall pick in the draft the very first chance I had. But not this story.

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Jason LaRue hits it deep to center, but Jim Edmonds climbs the wall and stretches out for an amazing backhanded grab to rob the would-be home run.

My dad and I just happened to be in Cincinnati to cross Great American Ballpark off our list on a July weekend in 2004. We just happened to be seeing the Reds play the Cardinals, who happened to have a center fielder known for making highlight-reel defensive plays. We just so happened to be sitting in the bleachers in right-center field when Jason LaRue hit a would-be home run just to the right of the center-field fence in the ninth inning of a 7-5 game.

From our vantage point, we had a perfect view as Jim Edmonds, starting shallow as always, ran back, leaped at the fence and, with his entire arm stretched over the fence, snagged the ball, took a run off the board and quieted an entire ballpark of Reds fans. But as amazing as the catch was, the best part from where we were sitting was being able to watch Edmonds turn and watch himself on the video board with the same expression we all had on our faces as we tried to figure how the heck he timed the catch, jump and turn perfectly enough to pull it off.


Kiley McDaniel: Brinson’s high school sweetie

In high school, Marlins outfielder Lewis Brinson was a tools marvel. On the 20-80 scale (50 is major league average), he projected for 60 raw power, was about a 70 runner, projected as a 70 defender in center field and had a 60 arm. There are no more than a few players on earth who have those present tools. Brinson doesn’t even have the same run or defend tools that he used to or projected to have, as he has bulked up.

At the plate, he was kind of a mess at that stage. His high school team didn’t have another Division I player on its roster, and Brinson wasn’t the best hitter on the team, but he still went 29th overall in the 2012 draft because of his potential. He was gangly and long-limbed and had some giraffe-like qualities at the plate. He was pure gazelle in the field, though.

In the first inning of a game that was flush with high-level scouts, a soft liner was hit just over the second baseman’s head, and Brinson seemingly took three strides to make a diving catch on a ball that was hit closer to the right fielder than to him. It looked like Giannis Antetokounmpo playing a fully realized center field. The scouts and I all gasped, then looked at each other silently and bemoaned the fact that we still had to figure out how to project Brinson’s hitting ability.


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