PITTSBURGH -- The biggest play in the Pirates’ 2-1 win over the Reds on Saturday night at PNC Park wasn’t a swing of the bat. It wasn’t a defensive highlight or a big strikeout. It wasn’t really even a play. What it was, however, was the latest exhibition of the intangible value Austin Hedges, the veteran backstop with nine seasons under his belt, continues to provide.
“It’s why we targeted him,” said manager Derek Shelton following the club’s sixth consecutive win. “It’s why he’s so important, because there’s a lot of things that he does that you can’t measure.”
In the third inning, Rich Hill lost the strike zone. He walked Spencer Steer and Stuart Fairchild on eight straight pitches. When Hill opened Tyler Stephenson’s at-bat with a curveball that missed the zone, Hedges popped out of his squat and held court with his starter.
Hedges noticed that Hill’s curveball was breaking well but wasn’t starting in the right spot. After sharing that insight, the catcher adjourned the quick meeting and the battery got back to work. From there, Hill locked in.
The lefty rebounded from the first-pitch ball to strike Stephenson out on five pitches. He fanned Wil Myers on three pitches, then got Kevin Newman to ground into a forceout to end the inning. After throwing one strike and nine consecutive balls to begin the frame, Hill threw nine of his next 10 pitches for strikes and escaped the inning unscathed.
Hill couldn’t extend the rotation’s streak of quality starts to 12, pitching only five innings of one-run ball, but Hedges’ words of wisdom helped ensure that the lefty’s night didn’t end right then and there in the third.
“The mound visit by Austin was huge, just being able to pick out a few things that he saw, and it clicked with me,” Hill said. “It was perfect timing for it. He did an incredible job tonight behind the dish.”
For Hedges, the mound visit was the second time in as many games that he contributed to a win in an unquantifiable manner. In Friday’s 4-2 win, Hedges contributed to the victory in an even less obvious manner than Saturday’s mound visit.
During the eighth inning of that game, David Bednar began to get loose to shut the door on the Reds, but due to some efficient pitching by Cincinnati reliever Reiver Sanmartin, Bednar appeared to be in a time crunch. With Hedges in the hole, Sanmartin retired Mark Mathias on just two pitches via groundout, then got Rodolfo Castro to harmlessly fly out on one pitch.
Hedges knew his closer needed more time to prepare, so he pulled a veteran move. The backstop slowly approached the plate, dug his right foot into the batter’s box a couple times, took a deep breath and called timeout. He exited the batter’s box, made faux adjustments to his high socks à la Nomar Garciaparra, then stepped back in for his plate appearance.
The Reds’ broadcast team joked that Hedges immediately took the timeout so he could listen to his walk-up song, but his true intent was clear: give Bednar more time. Along with his strategic use of the timeout, Hedges worked six pitches out of Sanmartin before lining out to second to end the frame. In total, Hedges provided his closer with an extra two minutes to get loose. The extra time appeared to help as Bednar proceeded to record his MLB-leading seventh save on eight pitches.
“For him to have that presence of mind and that game-awareness to know, ‘OK, those were two pretty quick ones, I’ll give him a bit more time to warm up,’ is huge,” Bednar said. “It’s one of the many things that he brings to the table and why he’s such a great addition for us.”
Added Hill, “That speaks to experience. That's something that doesn't show up on the back of your baseball card, so to speak. Having that feel and having that innate ability to be able to call timeout and understand the cadence of the game, what the situation is and what is needed in that moment, he certainly provides that for us.”
Hedges’ value to the Pirates isn’t completely unquantifiable. Entering Saturday, Hedges ranked in the 96th percentile for catcher framing and tied for fifth among all catchers with two defensive runs saved across 79 2/3 innings. With a sacrifice bunt in the third inning, he’s tied for the league lead with three. But on Friday and Saturday night, Hedges showed the savvy, sneaky ways in which he can affect ballgames and, ultimately, contribute to wins.