Burleson takes center stage, even after Walker's flashy grab

July 16th, 2023

ST. LOUIS -- Even after going up above the Busch Stadium wall and making a game-saving catch -- and undoubtedly the best defensive play of his young MLB career -- Cardinals outfielder Alec Burleson had a little bit of an inferiority complex when his grab was compared to one made later in the night by prized rookie Jordan Walker.

“I don’t know if I can even reach that ball [Walker] caught because he’s so much taller than me,” Burleson said while flexing some self-deprecating humor following St. Louis' 9-6 win over the Nationals in the second game of Saturday's doubleheader. “I don’t know, but the [Busch Stadium] crowd seemed to like [Walker’s] play better, so I guess I’ll just leave it at that.”

Regardless of the decibels on the fan reaction, Burleson found himself in the crux of Saturday’s most pivotal moment. With the Cardinals having already lost Game 1 7-5 in 10 innings and in danger of squandering a big lead in the nightcap, Burleson retreated to the warning track in left, calmly found the wall and leaped into the air to rob Joey Meneses of a three-run home run that would have vaulted the Nats into the lead, instead leaving Washington to settle for one run scoring on a sacrifice fly.

The robbery saved starter Steven Matz from being saddled with two more earned runs, and it helped reliever Dakota Hudson keep the game close. It also provided momentum for the Cards, who tacked on three runs in the bottom of the fifth.

“Oh my gosh, I was like, ‘Please stay in,’ and then you see [Burleson] robbing a homer,” marveled Hudson, who pitched 3 1/3 innings of scoreless baseball to get his first victory of the season. “After he made that play, it changed the momentum of the game. If you’ve got guys going up there and making plays like that, it gives you all the confidence in the world.”

Burleson’s game-saving grab came on a night when he also contributed three hits, including his sixth home run of the season. Burleson got his night started with a 427-foot home run that left the bat at 106.6 mph and put St. Louis up 1-0 in the second inning. That spark helped ignite a Cardinals offense that registered a season-best 17 hits, and all nine starters had at least one hit.

“In the pregame, I was talking to a couple of our hitting coaches, and I wanted to pull [Nats starter Jake Irvin] in because he had a little run on his fastball, but for me, I don’t even think that was my best swing of the night,” said Burleson, whose three-hit night boosted his season average to .233. “The best swing of the night was in my second at-bat when I lined out. But I was able to put a good swing on that fastball [for the home run].”

In the lineup only sporadically because of the overcrowding in the outfield, Burleson said the work he’s put in in recent weeks with Cards Hall of Famer and assistant coach Willie McGee helped him be ready to make Saturday’s game-saving catch. Whether he’s in the lineup or not, Burleson said he and McGee often work during the pregame on learning to better track balls hit close to the wall.

McGee, one of the heroes of the St. Louis' 1982 World Series championship team, is as likable as anyone in a Cardinals uniform, but he also practices a tough-love approach when it comes to outfielders pouring their all into their defensive habits.

“Willie challenged me -- him and the whole coaching staff challenged me to get better [defensively] out there,” Burleson said. “I may not have been out there as much as I wanted to, but I took that [challenge]. I’ve been using that work in BP and treated that like my game. I haven’t made a play like that in BP, but the work helps me track balls better. I’ve taken pride in getting better, and that work in BP might have [contributed] to that.”

Walker, a 6-foot-6, 245-pound physical specimen, has been a part of many of those same defensive drills. He made the finest catch of his rookie season in the eighth when he covered 93 feet and hit a sprint speed of 29.3 feet per second before making a diving grab, per Statcast.

Not surprisingly, Walker’s catch drew a roaring ovation from the crowd of 41,900. While Walker’s grab might have been more impressive, it wasn’t more important than Burleson’s. Playfully, Burleson wanted to make that clear after the game.

“I probably got up like two feet because I can’t jump really well,” Burleson said. “I wasn’t sure what was going on until I looked up and saw I was on the scoreboard and I was like, ‘Aw jeez, I know that’s ugly and I don’t look very good,’ but it was great to have [the fan cheers] behind you.”