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These heads-up plays paid off in a big way

June 3, 2019

Teams can plan and strategize, and players can hone their skills in an effort to best the opponent, but sometimes baseball comes down to one player reacting in the moment and doing something extraordinary. While practice makes perfect, it’s safe to say these amazing heads-up plays were not part of

Teams can plan and strategize, and players can hone their skills in an effort to best the opponent, but sometimes baseball comes down to one player reacting in the moment and doing something extraordinary.

While practice makes perfect, it’s safe to say these amazing heads-up plays were not part of the workout routine back in Spring Training.

Derek Jeter, Yankees
2001 ALDS Game 3 at A’s

Now known succinctly as “The Flip,” Jeter’s momentum-shifting play in the 2001 American League Division Series is one of the signature moments of the shortstop’s incredible career, as well as one of the most unforgettable sequences in postseason history. Facing elimination after losing the first two games of the ALDS at home, the Yankees had a 1-0 lead with two out in the bottom of the seventh inning in Game 3 when Terrence Long laced a double down the right-field line. It looked as though the A’s were about to tie the game when Shane Spencer sailed a throw over both cutoff men, but Jeter ran across the field, corralled Spencer’s throw and made a backhanded shovel toss to the plate from halfway up the first-base line to nab Jeremy Giambi, who infamously didn’t slide. The Yankees held on to win the game and also won the next two to take the series. In 2014, then-Yankees manager Joe Girardi confirmed the club had since added the play to its Spring Training drills, just in case.

Carlton Fisk, White Sox
Aug. 2, 1985, at Yankees

In the midst of a tie game in the seventh inning at Yankee Stadium, Fisk found himself at the center of a stunning sequence that led to not one, but two outs. It all started when Rickey Henderson lifted a fly ball to left-center field that barely eluded the glove of center fielder Luis Salazar, and lead runner Bobby Meacham momentarily stopped between second and third. By the time Meacham got moving again, Dale Berra was on his heels, and both players rounded third base almost simultaneously as the relay throw came home, much to the chagrin of third-base coach Gene Michael. They were met at the plate by Fisk, who tagged Meacham and Berra in succession to spoil New York’s rally. The White Sox ultimately won the contest, 6-5, in extra innings.

Chase Utley, Phillies
2008 World Series Game 5 vs. Rays

The 2008 World Series is best remembered for the rain that caused Game 5 to be suspended after the top of the sixth inning and prevented the game from being resumed until two days later. But once it did, Utley made a sensational play to stop the Rays from taking the lead in the top of the seventh, setting the stage for the Phillies to score what would be the series-winning run in the bottom of the frame. With two out and a runner on second, Utley made a strong effort to get to Akinori Iwamura’s grounder up the middle, but realized he wasn’t going to be able to throw him out at first. Eyeing Jason Bartlett coming around third, Utley faked an off-balance throw to first and he then fired the ball to catcher Carlos Ruiz, who placed the tag on Bartlett for the third out.

Manny Machado, Orioles
Sept. 12, 2012, vs. Rays

Nearly four years after the Utley play, Machado similarly faked out the Rays to prevent the go-ahead run from scoring in the top of the ninth inning. Machado, then a 20-year-old rookie, barehanded Evan Longoria’s slow roller up the third-base line and feigned a throw to first as Rich Thompson rounded third. Machado turned and threw the ball to shortstop J.J. Hardy at third base, and after a brief rundown, the Orioles were able to retire Thompson to end the inning. Machado then led off the bottom of the ninth with a single and he came around to score the winning run on Nate McLouth’s walk-off hit.

Best of the rest

Here are some other times in recent memory when head-up plays paid off in a big way.

Ender Inciarte, Braves
May 10, 2016, vs. Phillies

Inciarte's quick thinking led to a double play for Atlanta on a routine fly ball to right-center field, as Ruiz started for second base when the Braves center fielder pretended to lose track of the ball. Inciarte caught the ball and he threw it to first base to double off the Phillies catcher. Watch >

Eric Hosmer, Royals
2015 World Series Game 5 at Mets

After entering the ninth inning of Game 5 in the 2015 Fall Classic faced with a 2-0 deficit, the Royals quickly cut the Mets' lead to 2-1 and saw Hosmer reach third base with one out. Based on the club's scouting reports, Hosmer knew he would be able to test first baseman Lucas Duda’s arm if he had the chance. So when Mets third baseman David Wright fielded Salvador Perez’s chopper between third and shortstop and started to throw the ball to Duda at first, Hosmer broke for the plate. Duda’s throw home sailed wide, Hosmer slid in safely with the tying run and the Royals ultimately won the game in 12 innings to clinch their first World Series championship since 1985. Watch >

Johnny Damon, Yankees
2009 World Series Game 4 at Phillies

Of the 421 steals Damon tallied in his career (postseason included), his two on one play with the score tied in the ninth inning of this World Series contest were perhaps the most important. After reaching first on a two-out single, Damon immediately took off on the next pitch and he stole second with ease. Realizing that nobody was covering third base due to Philadelphia’s shift on Mark Teixeira, Damon popped up from his slide and took third as well. He eventually scored the go-ahead run on Alex Rodriguez’s double, and New York took a 3-1 series lead en route to its 27th World Series title. Watch >

Chuck Knoblauch, Twins
1991 World Series Game 7 vs. Braves

Lonnie Smith’s baserunning blunder in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the 1991 World Series was caused by Knoblauch, who pretended he was turning a double play at second base to fool Smith. The Braves speedster should have easily scored the go-ahead run on Terry Pendleton’s double to left-center field, but he momentarily stopped running because of Knoblauch’s decoy and had to stop at third base. Jack Morris worked out of the jam to keep the game scoreless and the Twins went on to win in 10 innings, clinching their second World Series title in five seasons. Watch >

Thomas Harrigan is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @HarriganMLB.