Coco's catch exemplifies Sox's run
Boston's historic defensive run has been backbone of streak
BOSTON -- Coco Crisp made a catch for the ages, but why not? The rest of the Red Sox haven't exactly been dropping anything, either.
It was absolutely fitting that the Boston center fielder made a catch that will live on as long as the concept of highlight reels exists. On this same Thursday night, the Red Sox set an American League record by playing their 16th consecutive errorless game. This also tied the Major League record set by the 1992 St. Louis Cardinals.
In the process, the Sox defeated the New York Mets, 4-2, for their 12th victory in a row, and a sweep of their Interleague series. Catching the ball obviously isn't the only thing that the Red Sox are doing well, but on this night, you were reminded how absolutely vital their defense is to their success.
The defensive play of the game, the game-saving play at that moment, was by Crisp in the eighth. In a 3-2 game, with one on and two outs, David Wright hit a rocket to left-center. You saw the flight of the ball, and then the only thought you had was that Carlos Beltran was certain to score from first to tie the game.
But Crisp came sprinting across the outfield grass, in what seemed to be an improbable attempt to win a race with this baseball. When he got close, as the ball's flight was about to end, he made a full-out dive. When the ball ended up in his glove, this seemed like a miraculous conclusion. Reliever Mike Timlin, headed toward backing up the plate, simply turned, lifted his arms in the air and shouted: "Wow!" That was the only reasonable human reaction.
"Under the circumstances -- the time of the game, the score, everything like that -- I don't think I've ever seen a better play," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "That was an incredible play."
Initially, even Crisp didn't think it was a play that could be made. "I was playing [Wright] to hit the ball the other way, slightly," he said. "I got a pretty good jump, but I didn't think I could get there. I had to go after it in a straight line. I was running hard and decided to go for it. Took a leap of faith."
A leap of faith, indeed. It was a remarkable display of speed, timing, athleticism, courage -- most of what there is in the world of sports, apart from brute strength. Not only did Crisp cover a lot of ground when he ran, he also covered considerable distance when he made his dive.
"I was able to soar through the air ... no, I don't want to say soar, do I?" Crisp said with a smile. "I was able to glide long enough to make the catch."
And he's modest, too. This was a night when the Red Sox needed every bit of positive play they could find, whether spectacular or merely solid, because Curt Schilling was matched against Tom Glavine, and big bunches of runs would not be scored.
"Tonight, we played as good a game as we've played in a long time," Francona said.
And the way the Sox have been playing, that's taking in a lot of ground. Boston leads the Major Leagues in highest fielding percentage and fewest errors. Those may be imprecise measurements. Baseball is a game of numbers that never has quantified defensive skill all that precisely. But with the Red Sox, these numbers at least provide a start in the right direction.
The infield defense had been the core of the Red Sox's defensive improvement. It has Mike Lowell, the National League Gold Glove third baseman in 2005, Alex Gonzalez, a superb defender at short, the remarkably steady Mark Loretta at second, and Kevin Youkilis, formerly a third baseman, at first.
Earlier in the season, it was often said that the solid defensive work of Youkilis was "a surprise." We're passed the surprise stage now. He's a good first baseman, period.
Thursday night, Youkilis robbed Jose Reyes of a hit in the third with a diving, backhanded stab. In the sixth, Youkilis and Loretta combined to take a hit away from Jose Valentin. On a ball wide of first, Youkilis dove but could not reach it, but Loretta, ranging far to his left, could. Still, Youkilis had to scramble back to the bag, lunge and then sprawl to take Loretta's throw for the out.
In the third, Lowell made the classic third baseman's play on a good bunt by the speedy Endy Chavez, picking up the ball barehanded, throwing across his body, in one seamless motion. Right fielder Gabe Kapler made a nice running grab of sinking liner by Valentin in the third.
These were all very fine defensive plays, even if they were later overshadowed by Crisp's catch. That catch was astounding, but the rest of the sound defensive work was a day at the office for the Red Sox, part of the reason that they can lead their division and win 12 in a row. Or as Francona puts it: "When the ball ends up where it's supposed to, it's a lot easier to win games."
It may be that some of these players have not previously received due notice for their glove work. But playing for the Red Sox, playing very well for the Red Sox, that will change. The infield has blended together smoothly and it has also become a mutual admiration society.
For instance, there's Loretta on Gonzalez: "He's as good as I've ever seen. He makes spectacular plays, but he doesn't have lapses on routine ground balls. Understand, there really is no such thing as a routine ground ball. Every one is different. But he doesn't have lapses on ground balls that appear to be routine."
Or there is Lowell on Loretta: "In the past, with the unbalanced schedule, I only saw him six times a year. But he's very underrated."
Lowell and Gonzalez both came from the Florida Marlins, where Gonzalez was never known for his offensive prowess and Lowell was coming off the worst hitting year of his career. Yet each is making significant offensive contributions here, Lowell batting .303 with 40 RBIs, Gonzalez, after a slow start, bringing his average up to .270 and hitting homers in the first two games of this series.
"Before the season, the experts said that we were sacrificing offense for defense," Lowell said. "Our defense has been as good as expected, maybe better. But we've also been swinging the bats well, and that's really satisfying."
Every part of their game is working these days for the Red Sox. But between Coco Crisp performing a miracle on a line drive and everybody playing spotless defense for 16 straight games, this is the rare occasion you would look at the Boston Red Sox and "terrific defense" could legitimately be the first thing that came to mind.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.