Pillar prevents big inning with leaping catch
Beats out double play, scores in Blue Jays' 3-run second inning
TORONTO -- When the baseball smacked into the webbing of Kevin Pillar's glove, he knew he was closing in on the wall, and fast. The Blue Jays center fielder never broke stride, crashing into the blue padding and landing on his back amidst a celebratory eruption from the Toronto faithful.
Incredible catches by Pillar have become a routine part of postgame highlights, but this is the postseason stage, and this bruising display in the first inning loomed larger in Monday's 11-8 victory over the Royals in Game 3 of the best-of-seven American League Championship Series (Game 4, 3 p.m. ET today on FOX Sports 1 and Sportsnet, 4 p.m. game time). Pillar was not going to let the wall come between him and cutting Kansas City's series lead to 2-1.
"I'm fearless," said Pillar, who also played a key role in Toronto's early offensive rallies. "Maybe stupid at some times, but I'm out there to help my team win any way possible. I'll run through a wall for them."
Pillar did not run through the wall -- this time.
Asked if the barricade in center has much give, Pillar let out the kind of nervous laugh that made it seem as though the question summoned painful memories.
"Not a ton, but I'm a tough guy," he replied. "I'll bounce back."
With Kansas City already holding a 1-0 lead in the first inning, Lorenzo Cain drilled a pitch from Blue Jays starter Marcus Stroman to deep center field on a line for what looked like a sure extra-base hit. As Pillar has done so often this season, though, he saw to it that the end result was an out that defied the odds and elicited a roar that had the ballpark rocking.
Pillar broke back toward the wall on a dead sprint, extending his glove at the last possible second and snaring the baseball from the air. The center fielder's momentum led to him crashing hard into the padded wall, sending him to the ground, where he caught his breath while on his back.
According to Statcast™, Pillar covered 99.2 feet on the play with a route efficiency of 92 percent. His first step was measured at 0.19 seconds, and he hit a top speed of 18.6 mph. The distance covered on the play marked Pillar's fourth-longest catch of the season. His season high was 117.5 feet on June 23 against the Rays.
"It was a huge catch, but it doesn't surprise me," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "Really, he's been doing that all year long. And we kind of take that for granted, because that's what he does. There's nobody better out there."
The catch was reminiscent of the one made in Game 3 of the 1992 World Series by former Blue Jays center fielder Devon White, who was on hand Monday to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
"[Pillar is] a good player. He's coming into his own," White said. "It's tough that everyone's starting to compare him to myself, because I left a mark out there. But, he's held his own, and I'm happy for him."
Earlier in this series, Pillar jokingly confessed that he is Superman. His heroics helped Stroman avoid having a rough start turn into a big inning. Alcides Escobar opened the first inning by sending a pitch to right field, where Jose Bautista was unable to come up with a diving catch, resulting in a leadoff triple. Ben Zobrist followed with a groundout that scored Escobar to drop the Blue Jays behind, 1-0.
After Pillar's catch, and a subsequent groundout from Eric Hosmer, Stroman headed back to the home dugout to loud cheers of approval from the packed dome.
Pillar then played hero again at the plate in the second and third innings.
With one out and runners on first and second base, Pillar chopped a pitch from Royals starter Johnny Cueto to Escobar at shortstop. Pillar hustled up the line and beat out a relay throw from Zobrist on a potential inning-ending double play. Pillar then stole second base -- uncontested by the Royals. He then dove head-first across the plate to score the trail run on a two-run single by Ryan Goins.
"You can run hard down the line, that's something that we can all control," Pillar said. "It's a deep lineup. You give the guy at the bottom, you give the last hitter an opportunity to come up with a big hit and, ultimately, turn the lineup over. That's what we're trying to do. So, any time we can extend an inning, we've got confidence in anyone coming up."
An inning later, Pillar doubled in a run during the Blue Jays' six-run outburst, which included Troy Tulowitzki's three-run homer and Josh Donaldson's two-run shot, as Toronto jumped out to a 9-2 lead after three innings.
"He's on a nice roll with the bat," Gibbons said. "He's one of the guys that does everything in the game: plays defense, gets big hits, can steal bases. Really, guys like him get lost on this team, because of the guys at the top of the lineup."
Pillar stood out on Monday.
"He's willing to give up his body," Donaldson said. "He's just been a big sparkplug for us this entire year."