Hamilton steals the show -- then the ballgame
First career theft in seventh turns into only run in Reds' critical victory
CINCINNATI -- The base that Billy Hamilton stole was leaning against the corner of his locker, a memento of his magical moment that -- come to think of it -- wasn't really magical at all.
Magic, after all, is the art of deception. It derives its entertainment value from the unexpected. But what Hamilton did here, in the Reds' 1-0 win over the division-rival Cardinals at Great American Ball Park, was entirely expected, and that, in essence, is the beauty of watching Blazin' Billy run.
You know it's coming. The pitcher knows it's coming, the catcher knows it's coming, Hamilton's own mother knows it's coming (and, blessedly, she was on-hand to watch it happen), and yet Billy can't be stopped.
"I didn't send him out there to paint," Dusty Baker would say. "It was no secret."
None at all. The only secret was whether the Reds would have the opportunity to make much use of their not-so-secret weapon in the September playoff push. Turns out, the opportunity arose quickly. On Hamilton's second day in the big leagues, in the seventh inning of a scoreless tie, Ryan Ludwick singled off Seth Maness, and I swear it seemed Hamilton was standing at first to pinch-run before Ludwick even touched the bag.
All right, fine, that's an exaggeration, but you get the idea. Hamilton is fast, and his impact on this game -- a game that had been an entertaining pitchers' duel between Homer Bailey and Michael Wacha -- was appropriately instantaneous.
It didn't even matter that Yadi Molina was behind the dish. Molina had allowed just 59.6 percent of opposing baserunners to steal off him since his own arrival in 2004 -- the lowest such percentage among catchers with more than 500 games caught in that span.
It didn't matter that Maness and the rest of the Cards' pitchers were shown extensive video of Hamilton's fleet feet at the Minor League level as part of their pre-series prep.
All that mattered was that Baker told Hamilton, "I need you on second," and Hamilton obliged.
"That's my job," Hamilton said.
The value of the playoff-push pinch-runner is intrinsically tied to the propensity of opportunity, and so that value is very much debatable, if not altogether whimsical.
The Reds don't envision Hamilton's career going down the Herb Washington path, if for no other reason than it would be difficult -- in any month other than September -- to justify the roster spot of a guy who can't do anything but run. Hamilton endured a difficult adjustment at Triple-A Louisville this year, adopting to both a new level and a new position in center field. We don't know if his bat will ever play in the big leagues.
But we do know that in this moment, given the accommodating environs of 40-man rosters, Hamilton is worth the meal money and the minimum because, hey, you never know.
You think back to Chone Figgins, breaking in with the Angels at the end of '02 and earning his keep not with the bat (he hit .167) but with his legs. Mike Scioscia made the somewhat bold decision to keep Figgins on his 25-man roster for the postseason simply because of his speed, and Figgins wound up scoring four runs over three series, including the tying run in the Halos' Game 6 comeback victory over Baker's Giants in the World Series.
Hamilton won't be eligible for October, but, like Figgins, he'll eke every ounce of value out of his legs while he can.
"Everybody in the world knows what he's done in the Minor Leagues," Baker said.
Yep, a record-breaking 155 steals (in 192 attempts) last year in Class A Bakersfield and Double-A Pensacola. Another 75 steals (in 90 attempts) this year, even in the midst of a brutal offensive season (Hamilton's OBP dropped from .420 in '12 to .308 in '13). The Reds figured he was worth a shot.
"I ain't been that nervous in a long time," Hamilton said.
Nerves come with the territory this time of year, and right now the Cards are feeling it as much as anybody. They've dropped five of six -- all to the Reds and Pirates -- largely because their rotation has fallen into disrepair. The rookie Wacha's splendid start -- six shutout innings on three hits with two walks -- was the prescribed pick-me-up, but it was offset by Bailey's equally brilliant effort -- seven shutout innings on two hits with one walk.
The last two days haven't done anything to impact the Reds' overall deficit in the NL Central, as the Pirates won again Tuesday night, but they are within 1 1/2 games of the Cards while reminding the world that, in Mat Latos and Bailey, they've got a formidable one-two punch atop the rotation, even with Johnny Cueto out of the picture.
Oh, they've also got that other speed demon, of a different sort, looming in the ninth. And an eight-day layoff did little to take the shine off Aroldis Chapman's 103-mph stuff as he shut the door in the ninth.
But the run that made it all worthwhile came via Hamilton's wheels. Maness peeked over and threw to first three times after Hamilton reached the scene.
"That really got me going," Hamilton said. "I felt like when he did that, I had a chance on him. I felt like he was nervous. And if he's that nervous, I got a chance on him."
He took his chance on Maness' first pitch to Todd Frazier. Molina rose up and fired waywardly to second, and, were his throw on-target, maybe we're not having this discussion. But it was certainly worth wondering if Hamilton's reputation had preceded him to the point of affecting the throw of the game's greatest threat to would-be basestealers.
"Yadi, he's made so many good throws this year," Cards manager Mike Matheny said. "Seth did a nice job of trying to keep him close. But we knew that was going to be a part of their game plan going into this series."
Baker planned to bunt Hamilton over to third, but Frazier's attempt went awry. So Frazier swung away in a two-strike count and lined a double to left. Hamilton was across the plate and in the dugout before the liner even landed.
All right, another exaggeration. What can I say? Hamilton's rare gift invites them.
But let's not exaggerate further and say we should expect more of this from Hamilton, who planned to give the memento of his first stolen base to his mother, Polly, in the weeks to come. Realistically, the opportunities to directly impact the outcome will be limited, at best. Non-existent, at worst.
"Time's running out," Baker said.
That's what made Billy Hamilton's moment in time so special. He stole a win for the Reds. And in September, that's one heck of a heist.