For a center fielder, the low line drive heading directly toward you is as tricky a play as there is.
“It’s like you’re standing in the middle of the road, and you’ve got a truck coming at you,” Yankees third base coach Rob Thomson said.
The center fielder, robbed of depth perception, is unable to judge the ball’s distance as it speeds toward him. His only choice, Thomson said, is to freeze and wait — and try to stay relaxed while seeking the proper read.
The Yankees’ Curtis Granderson froze on Don Kelly’s drive with the bases loaded and two outs in the first inning Tuesday night in Game 4 of the Division Series. He froze, and the ball took off, rising quickly.
“I was like, ‘Oh man,’” Granderson said.
Kelly is so fast, Tigers manager Jim Leyland said the play might have resulted in an inside-the-park grand slam if Granderson had fallen down and the ball had gone over his head.
But nothing of the sort took place.
Granderson quickly retreated, nearly stumbling as he sprinted seven steps back. He leaped, caught the ball over his left shoulder and crashed to the ground on his stomach.
His catch enabled Yankees right-hander A.J. Burnett to avoid falling behind 3-0 and maybe 4-0. His catch, Leyland said, provided the key out in the Yankees’ 10-1 victory, helping force Game 5 on Thursday night in New York.
And to think, Granderson made an even better grab five innings later.
It’s easy to forget now that Granderson is coming off an MVP-type season, but the Tigers had serious concerns about his game when they traded him to the Yankees at the 2009 winter meetings.
Granderson struggled to make contact, struggled against left-handers. And word circulated that the Tigers were unhappy with his reads and routes in center field.
The following spring, Leyland acknowledged that center field was a “tough place to play in Detroit,” and said that Granderson also had problems on the road “a little bit, too.”
Thomson, who works with the Yankees’ outfielders, dismissed such talk. He said the Yankees’ players had told him that it was difficult for outfielders to see at Comerica Park because of the glare off the seats.
“I’ve watched a lot of tape on him,” Thomson said of Granderson then. “This kid is a special cat. He’s really athletic, really strong, really fast, a quick-twitch guy. I think a lot of that stuff is overblown. He is a much better defender than people are giving him credit for.”
Granderson seemingly has proved that with the Yankees — “he’s been nails since he’s been with us,” general manager Brian Cashman said. But some advanced metrics still depict him as a below-average defender. One such ratings system — “The Fielding Bible” plus-minus on Bill James Online — ranked Granderson 33rd among major-league center fielders this season.
“We have him as an above-average defensive outfielder,” Cashman said. “Our numbers don’t match some of that stuff. He comes out high on our defensive measurements.”
The Yankees considered playing Brett Gardner in center and moving Granderson to left after the trade. Gardner is indisputably the game’s top defensive left fielder and likely would be one of the best in center. But Cashman said the team’s approach was, “Let’s just see this and measure it for ourselves.” Then and now, the Yankees saw no reason to move Granderson off his position.
As it turned out, the three-team trade among the Yankees, Tigers and Diamondbacks benefited all three clubs immensely, helping transform each into a postseason qualifier just two years later.
Right-hander Max Scherzer, who went from the Diamondbacks to the Tigers, was brilliant against the Yankees in Game 2, pitching six shutout innings.
Center fielder Austin Jackson, who went from the Yankees to the Tigers, is still developing as a hitter, but is widely considered to be the game’s top defender in center.
Funny how the game works, though.
Jackson, for once, could not catch up to a ball Tuesday night, failing to run down Derek Jeter’s two-run double that broke a scoreless tie in the third inning.
Granderson, on the other hand, had luck on his side.
“Don Kelly came up to me later in the game and goes, ‘How did you do it?’” Granderson said. “I said, ‘You hit it hard. If you didn’t hit it hard, it would have fell in and been a base hit.”
Game 4 proved a rout, but only because the Yankees erupted for six runs in the eighth inning. Granderson’s second catch came with one on and two outs in the sixth, when the score was only 4-1. Burnett had just left the game, replaced by reliever Rafael Soriano.
Granderson said that his leaping backhand grab, on a drive into left-center by Jhonny Peralta, actually was more difficult than the first. Racing into the gap, he had to cover a lot more ground.
“I felt he was a guy that was going to hit the ball to the right-center gap, so that’s where I was shading him,” Granderson said. “Sure enough, he ended up hitting the ball to the left-center gap. So, I ended up having to go a lot further for it.
“I looked at Brett Gardner, he wasn’t there yet. So I decided to lay out for it.”
Granderson fully extended his body, flying parallel to the ground, then slid on his stomach for perhaps 15 feet. Toward the end of his landing he had his eyes closed. Video replays showed him wincing in pain.
“I was scared he was hurt,” Gardner said. “He didn’t get up.”
Granderson sat on his hands and knees for a moment, the wind knocked out of him. He said later that he must have hit his head, too, because he had a “little headache” afterward.
Funny how the game works.
Granderson, who struggled to make the necessary offensive adjustments with the Tigers, smacked an RBI double in the fifth inning — his third extra-base hit in three games — to give the Yankees a 3-1 lead.
Granderson, who lost the faith of the Tigers with his reads and routes in center field, made two catches that might help prove his former team’s undoing.
Granderson, one of the game’s most affable sorts, doesn’t see it that way.
When I asked him about the Tigers’ criticism afterward, he noted that he played center field in Detroit from 2006 to ’09 and never heard a negative word until after he was traded.
There he was Tuesday night, standing in the middle of the road, a truck coming at him.
Curtis Granderson made like Superman, and made the play.