5-foot-8 Mullins' HR robbery is Play of Week

Orioles CF goes way up to pull back long drive by Yankees' Sánchez

September 20th, 2021

BALTIMORE -- What can’t Cedric Mullins do?

The Orioles’ breakout center fielder is already closing in on the first 30-30 season (30 homers and 30 stolen bases) in club history. Now, he’s made what might be the catch of the year -- a grab that on Monday was named MLB's Play of the Week.

The play Mullins made to rob Gary Sánchez early in Wednesday’s gut-wrenching 4-3 loss to the Yankees will be in the conversation for the year's best, after Mullins went over the center-field wall at Oriole Park to take a two-run home run away from the Yankees’ slugger in the second inning. It was a dazzling display of athleticism from Mullins, who scaled the wall and spun 180 degrees to make the catch, his back fully turned from home plate. That he came up with the baseball surprised everyone in the ballpark, including O’s starter John Means.

“That was the most incredible catch,” Means said. “I was in awe.”

A delay effect followed. Mullins hung in the air so long, there was a moment where all watching -- Means and Baltimore catcher Austin Wynns in particular -- reacted as if Sánchez’s deep drive had cleared the wall. Seconds later, Mullins emerged with his glove hand raised, completing the 360-degree spin and exciting even the crowd of mostly visiting Yankees fans at Oriole Park.

“He deked me, also,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. “When he showed the ball to everybody, the dugout erupted.”

Added Baltimore right fielder Austin Hays: “It was definitely better than the one I made in a similar spot. He can definitely get up higher than I can.”

The reference there was to Hays’ acrobatic homer robbery of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. back in 2019. Means also went out of his way to call it the best defensive play he’s witnessed during his Orioles tenure, ranking it just ahead of Stevie Wilkerson’s circus catch at Fenway Park on the '19 season’s final day.

Where does it rank in Camden Yards history? That’s fodder for debate. But as far as recent memory goes, Mullins’ play at least evoked memories of Jackie Bradley Jr.'s gravity-defying robbery of Trey Mancini from 2019, and Mike Trout’s famous catch on J.J. Hardy in '12.

“It was a heck of a catch,” Hyde said.

In short, an exceptional play by any standards. And not out of character for Mullins, who entered play tied for seventh among MLB outfielders (and fifth in the American League) with 9 outs above average, per Statcast. He also ranks first among MLB center fielders in OPS (.901), slugging (.536) and total bases (291), second in homers (29), average (.299) and steals (28) and third in on-base percentage (.365). Mullins entered Wednesday as the AL’s third-most valuable player by fWAR (5.5), with a resume that’s all but certain to garner mid-ballot MVP votes come season’s end.

However, little of Mullins' 2021 brilliance has come in winning efforts. Wednesday marked another example. Despite additional highlight-reel defense from Kelvin Gutierrez -- who also robbed Sánchez of extra bases in the seventh -- neither gem loomed large in the final outcome.

Mullins’ catch helped keep things close enough for the Orioles to jump ahead on Hays’ two-out, two-strike, two-run homer off Chad Green in the eighth, his second of the game and 20th of the season. But the Yankees rallied off rookie closer Tyler Wells in the ninth, the decisive blow coming via Brett Gardner’s game-winning two-run single in the rain. The blown save was Wells’ second in as many tries; the loss was the Orioles’ fifth in a row and eighth straight with Means on the mound.

“Tough loss,” Hyde said. “We did a lot of really good things.”