Almora Jr. robs pair of hits with 5-star catches

August 20th, 2022

PITTSBURGH -- A five-star catch is an amazing thing for a fielder to accomplish. But twice in the same game? That’s a little hard to believe.

Albert Almora Jr. provided a pair of such grabs in center field in the first three innings of the Reds’ series opener against the Pirates at PNC Park. It was a bright spot in a crazy game of defensive conversions and near misses that ended in a 5-4 loss in walk-off fashion.

The first gem came on the third pitch of rookie righty Graham Ashcraft’s start. Leadoff hitter Kevin Newman struck a 93.3 mph liner toward center, while Almora was shaded toward right field. He ranged to his right, quickly covering 54 feet before he dove to snag the baseball right before it landed underneath him.

Almora followed that catch by robbing another batter leading off, this time in the third inning. Bligh Madris fought off a 2-2 cutter from Ashcraft and nearly was able to fly it into shallow right-center field. But Almora -- this time shaded to left-center field -- turned on the burners to cover 79 feet in 4.4 seconds.

“It’s great getting to have a guy like that,” said Ashcraft, who allowed three runs in 6 2/3 innings after beginning with the first five scoreless. “I mean, he gets some of the best reads off a fly ball that I’ve seen, and it’s awesome. It fires you up, and it gets you rolling.”

Both plays were given a 25% catch probability by Statcast, the upper end of the five-star range. Almora came into Friday’s game with only two such catches in his career -- and they came in different seasons.

“Great plays by Albert tonight,” manager David Bell said. “It changes the game. They were early in the game, but every out matters, and those innings could have gone a lot different.”

Almora drew the crazy metrics on the night, but maybe the craziest play on defense was a play that nearly cost the Reds the game before the ninth-inning struggles. As Ashcraft began to labor in the sixth inning, Oneil Cruz hit a chopper to first base with two outs, and the pitcher did not get over in time to field a throw from Mike Moustakas.

However, Cincinnati caught a break, as Ben Gamel made an aggressive turn around third base toward home and was caught in a pickle on a heads-up throw across the diamond by Moustakas. Kyle Farmer, who was recently converted from a middle infielder to a third baseman, tossed back and forth with catcher Michael Papierski before deciding to run down Gamel and tag his foot moments before he tagged the plate.

“Sometimes, things just happen on the field that you have to use your instincts,” Bell said, “and that’s what everybody on that play did, and we got an out. It was an odd play, and we figured out how to get an out.”

Though Almora made some incredible catches early, he came up just short on what would have been one of the best catches of the season by any player. Shaded to right-center again with Kevin Newman batting in the ninth, the center fielder had to rush toward left-center on a well-struck line drive. He covered 82 feet in 4.5 seconds, but he came up just a few feet short of robbing a hit with a 10% catch probability. Almora was checked on by trainers after failing to make the catch but remained in the game.

“I thought he had a shot at that -- not because he should have, but because of the other two balls he caught tonight, I thought he had no shot at,” Bell said. “Came up a little bit short on that, but [Newman is] a good hitter, tough guy to defend. He kind of hits to both sides of that gap a lot.”

The Reds have been able to rely on Almora this season as they’ve moved him around the outfield, with 28 games in right field, 22 in center and 17 in left field. Anywhere he’s played, he’s managed to make an impact.

Almora’s prowess on defense is well documented. In 2018, when Almora played a career-high 918 1/3 innings in center field, he was one of 11 big league outfielders to record at least 10 outs above average and one of 15 to have double digits in defensive runs saved (minimum 500 innings in the outfield).

Even as he works to get his bat going (.226/.283/.354 in 63 games), Almora is showing what kind of highlight-reel glove magic he’s capable of when he’s in the field.

“When he gets going out there, he’s rolling,” Ashcraft said.