The Cardinals stayed hot on Tuesday night with a win over the Dodgers (STL 5, LAD 2). With the victory, the Cardinals moved to 23-11 under manager Mike Shildt, and they also slid into the top wild-card position in the NL. What stood out on the St. Louis side was the miracle play made by second baseman Kolten Wong to deprive Justin Turner of a single to lead off the ninth. Dig it ...
Excelsior! It's not exaggeration to call that one of the best plays of recent memory. The 27-year-old Wong is of course an accomplished defender, and this season the eye test and the advanced metrics agree that he's been at his best. You'll never see a better example of Wong's fielding excellence writ small than this one.
The first thing to note is that Wong was was shading Turner toward the bag at second, which isn't surprising given that Turner of course bats from the right side and has conventional pull tendencies when hitting the ball on the ground. Without that adjusted positioning, though, this play wouldn't have been possible. Let this serve as a reminder that pre-pitch positioning and all the thinking and data scouting that go into it plays a role in so many of the great plays we see.
Anyhow, as you would expect, Wong's first step was also a major factor. Regard ...
On the far left is Wong, who's spotlighted, at the instant of contact. If you're wondering why he's so upright and not in the "athletic position" that's standard, we'll address that in a second. In the middle image, the ball has just left the bat (and is still hidden by Turner). As you can see, Wong is already making a determined move toward shortstop in a wink. In the far right screengrab, the ball is barely past the mound, and Wong is already at full stride.
Now let's see all of that in a clip that captures Wong pre-pitch:
In this you can see Wong performing something like the standard infielder's creep step but doing so laterally, toward short. That's why the first image above captures Wong in a bit of an unusual feet-under-knees position. He's already on the move. Needless to say, if Turner defies trends and hits the ball to Wong's left, he's probably not making the play. That didn't happen, though, and instead Wong's instinctual or intentional pre-pitch move toward the bag abetted the little miracle that followed.
It's not often we see an infielder diving from the first-base side to make a play in the shortstop's typical jurisdiction ...
Yep, the dive. You'll note of course that Wong didn't field the ball perfectly cleanly and instead kind of suffocated it. The unrelenting focus on the ball, though, helped him stay with it and recover:
With a faster runner, perhaps there's a dueling instinct to check on his progress for an instant. Wong sure knew that Turner is slow (he ranks 340th -- ! -- in sprint speed), and perhaps that allowed him to keep his focus where it was. Or perhaps, and this seems more likely, the dude's just making a play.
In his haste, part of Wong probably wanted to pick the ball up at that moment and figure out the rest later. Instead, he got himself in preliminary position to make a throw by using his throwing hand to -- no kidding -- help claw himself off the outfield grass:
Then we get a changeup grip on the ball since he obviously doesn't have time to ensure he's gripping the seams ...
Young pitchers can work on a rudimentary changeup by tossing the ball in the air, catching it with their throwing hand, and using whatever comes out of the wash as their changeup grip. That somewhat innate way of grabbing the ball is what you see above.
So peep the arm action on the throw:
That Wong was able to load up like that -- again, the decision to claw his way up rather than try to make the heave from the ground comes into play -- is why he was able to hit Matt Carpenter at first base on the fly and pretty much at torso level.
In the end, Wong's play sort of called to mind the 2006 play made by Tadahito Iguchi:
The difference is that Wong was making his throw from all the way on the other side of the bag, which is why I'd call Wong' play the more impressive one.
Mr. Wong, your thoughts?