Ramírez, Naylor make 'unbelievable play' in 12th

October 9th, 2022

CLEVELAND -- If the ball had bounced through, as it likely would for so many, the conversation right now might be Game 3 starters and the winner-take-all tilt the Guardians and Rays would be staging at Progressive Field on Sunday.

But the ball didn’t bounce through, because José Ramírez fielded it at third base and picked it at first, and this plucky Cleveland club that necessarily survives on the strength of its gloves kept the seemingly endless scoreless tie alive.

Yes, before there could be a 15th-inning Oscar Gonzalez walk-off home run to give the Guardians a 1-0 win over the Rays in Game 2 of the American League Wild Card Series and punch their ticket to an AL Division Series date with the Yankees, there had to be a game-preserving defensive gem in the 12th on Saturday afternoon. The ground ball Rays right fielder Manuel Margot sent Ramírez’s way looked like trouble with runners on the corners and two outs, but Cleveland’s star third baseman demonstrated just how impactful he can be even on days when he’s not ripping extra-base hits at the plate.

“He's an incredible defender,” Naylor said. “He's the best third baseman in baseball. We cherish that guy, we love him and, you know, we just try to play hard for each other. We try to make the tough plays, because it helps our pitching staff out.”

Before we zoom in on any particular play, let’s zoom out and inform those new to the surprising Guardians that this is how they win: By making plays. You can win on a budget in baseball. You can win with an offense that doesn’t produce much power and a lineup with an average roster age barely above what is required for the legal celebratory champagne.

But you can’t do that -- particularly in the postseason -- if you don’t make plays in the field. The Guardians rank far behind the Yankees and Dodgers in player payroll, but those financial behemoths are the only clubs that ranked ahead of them this season in defensive runs saved.

That’s the backdrop to what transpired in the 12th. It was a scoreless tie, with Cleveland reliever on the hill. Taylor Walls’ two-out single had advanced Harold Ramírez to third. And Ramírez was only able to advance because he had been ruled safe at first two batters prior on a very close pickoff attempt that the Guardians unsuccessfully challenged.

So Margot’s hard bouncer down the third-base line was dangerous. He has above-average sprint speed (65th percentile, per Statcast), and only the perfect play could nab him.

Ramírez made the perfect play. He fielded the ball at his feet, just in front of the line. His momentum carried him into foul territory, where he spun and, jumping backward off his right foot, threw a one-hopper to Naylor at first.

“You practice that once in a while,” Ramírez said through an interpreter. “[Infield coach Mike Sarbaugh] will make me, like, move to the side like that. But at the same time, those are plays where you just have to be calm and react.”

As Margot hustled toward first, Naylor stretched out his 5-foot-11, 250-pound body for all it was worth and caught that precious out mere milliseconds before Margot crossed the bag.

“That’s an unbelievable play,” Sarbaugh said.

Rays first-base coach Chris Prieto didn’t believe it. He immediately argued that Naylor’s foot had come off the bag. But Tampa Bay’s replay challenge was unsuccessful.

“Tremendous play,” Margot said through an interpreter.

There were others. Center fielder did his part to preserve the tie with a runner on third and two outs in the top of the 10th when Francisco Mejía ripped a 97.8 mph liner with a .760 expected batting average. True to form for the man who tied for the MLB lead in Outs Above Average in center, Straw ran it down.

The Guardians also benefited from another great Ramírez throw and Naylor pick to retire Yandy Díaz with the final out of the 13th. And in the 14th, , Naylor and combined on a nice inning-ending 4-3-6 double play.

“When you're playing tight games like that, defense is key,” Sarbaugh said. “Guys stepped up.”

This is how the Guardians got here, and this is why they are advancing. They might not always bash the ball like González did in the 15th. But they sure can catch it.