BOSTON -- Move over Austin Hays. Move over Aaron Hicks. Move over Jackie Bradley Jr. Stevie Wilkerson waited until the last minute, but there is a new candidate for Major League Baseball’s Play of the Year.
The Orioles right fielder put himself squarely in the conversation by robbing Bradley of a home run with a sensational play in the eighth inning of Sunday’s 5-4 loss to the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Making a rare start in right field, Wilkerson went over the wall, spun in mid-air and kept his balance atop the short porch to take what would’ve been a go-ahead two-run homer from Bradley and briefly keep the season finale knotted at 4.
“I thought the ball was 30 rows in off the bat,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “I just put my head down. I see him tracking it and I’m waiting for him to fall over into the bullpen, into the crowd, thinking he had no chance at it. And he comes out of it with the ball. It was one of the best catches I’ve ever seen.”
Said Mookie Betts, “That play has to be the catch of the year. I’ve seen some great catches, but that one was amazing.”
The irony was that it came against Bradley, perhaps the game’s premier homer thief. Bradley is a Play of the Year candidate himself for how he robbed Trey Mancini of what would’ve been a walk-off homer back in May. Wilkerson’s nab comes 10 days after the Orioles watched Austin Hays go over the right-center field wall at Oriole Park to rob Vlad Guerrero Jr. on Sept. 19.
In an unofficial MLB Network social media poll later that week, Hays usurped Hicks’ game-saving play in Minnesota from July as the season’s best catch.
“It was all a matter of time until my debts had to be paid,” Bradley said. “That was a great catch. Great catch, Stevie Wilkerson. I definitely hope you win play of the year so I can always be a part of it. It’s the first one I’ve ever been robbed. I’m usually the smooth criminal.”
That it came an inning before his lackadaisical throw allowed the Red Sox’s winning run to score from first on a single only hammered home what a weird day it was for Wilkerson, who had about as odd a defensive game as one can have. Battling the Boston sun all afternoon, Wilkerson misplayed at least three separate balls over the course of nine defensive innings, was charged with an error and allowed Red Sox runners to take several extra bases by hesitating to throw the ball back into the infield.
Squeezed into all that, he also made what Red Sox legend Dwight Evans called “the greatest catch ever by a right fielder in Fenway Park,” according to the BostonSportsJournal.com.
“I saw our bullpen’s reaction when I looked a little closer. He put his glove up and I was in shock,” Hyde said. “He plays like he’s in the backyard playing wiffle ball. That typifies his year a little bit, just an outstanding play in a big spot.”
Said Wilkerson, “When I came down, I realized I was sitting in a couple people’s laps.”
Wilkerson agreed it was a fitting way to end a season that was strange on several levels. A career Minor League infielder entering the year, Wilkerson spent the better part of four months as Baltimore’s everyday center fielder, pitched four times and generally never found himself too far away from the unusual.
He hit just .225 with a .669 OPS, but proved indispensable for his versatility on a roster with sizable cracks. He attacked every assignment eagerly, despite often being under-experienced and miscast for the role. His energy and attitude was lauded in the clubhouse.
On the mound, Wilkerson floated mid-50s lob balls and gave himself the nickname “Dr. Poo Poo.” He used them to retire hitters as accomplished as Tommy Pham, Albert Pujols and Yuli Gurriel, and he recorded the first save by a position player in MLB history. His cap from that night in Anaheim is in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
“I never played center field in my life before this season. I played the most games in center field on this team,” Wilkerson said. “I never pitched before in my life, and then I got the first save in the history of the league. I think I tried to rob about 50 homers and came up short on all of them until this one. It’s been a roller coaster year, and I’m looking forward to decompressing and reflecting on it in a couple of days.”