Los Angeles Angels leadoff hitter David Fletcher saw the opening. At third base in a one-run game with two outs, he was all eyes and ears. He’d been waiting, watching, anticipating. Then it happened. A ball in the dirt. A chance to tie the game.
“I was looking for a ball in the dirt the whole time,” Fletcher told reporters during a postgame video conference. “I finally got it. It hit off his chest pretty hard. I was going to score pretty easy.”
Except Kansas City Royals All-Star catcher Salvador Perez, who surpassed 1,000 career hits in the previous night’s game, turned that read by Fletcher into game-ending defensive wizardry through a combination of stone-cold precision and daring.
A five-time Gold Glove Award winner, Perez blocked an 0-2 pitch in the dirt and the ball bounced and hit the batter Jared Walsh in the leg. Perez located and gathered the ball, then threw a bullet to third in time to catch Fletcher off third base.
That’s how the Royals secured a 3-2 win on Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium when the Angels had the bases loaded. The Angels challenged the play, but video replay upheld the out call.
“We got the old trick play called,” Royals reliever Greg Holland quipped after the game. “Me and Salvy talked about it. I was going to throw it off his chest and we were going to throw him out at third. I’m glad it worked.”
Holland, who has pitched eight of his 11 major-league seasons for the Royals, described the difference Perez’s presence and their familiarity with one another made in a play like that.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to play with Salvy for a long time,” Holland said. “I don’t know if I was on TV, but I was just kind of laughing because he and I both know that in those situations I’m going to throw it in the dirt and we both also know that he’s going to go get it.”
Holland called it “reassuring” for a pitcher to know he’s got the ability to “let it rip” and trust that his catcher will keep the ball from getting to the backstop or rattling around in foul territory as runners score and advance.
“I’m not afraid to bounce one or two or three or four with a man on third and him back there,” Holland said. “That makes me a better player, and that makes us a better team.”
Royals manager Mike Matheny, a four-time Gold Glove winner as a catcher during his own career, admires and praises Perez’s willingness to throw behind runners, attempt pick-offs and back-picks to steal outs for his pitchers.
Even while lauding Perez’s quick thinking, decisiveness and execution on that play, Matheny pointed out that he saved multiple runs throughout the game with plays he made behind the plate.
Before the pitch in the dirt that ended the game, Matheny and his coaches were talking about Perez’s ability to block balls with the high likelihood of Holland burying a breaking pitch with a lot of spin.
Of course, they weren’t anticipating him making a throw to pick a runner off. But they were hardly shocked.
“We’re just thinking about keeping the ball in front with two strikes,” Matheny said. “That’s one of those plays. We’ve talked about it. There’s certain players that have that fearlessness to them where they’re not afraid of what the negative ramifications might be.
“They’re thinking about what the potential bonus would be if we can pull something off. That’s rare. There’s a lot of risk mitigation, not with the fearless players like a Salvador Perez. It’s fun to watch. Obviously, today it’s a game-changer. But he does it all the time.”
While Fletcher was certain in that split-second that he was going to score, Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield experienced a very different type of certainty from his vantage point on the field as he watched the play unfold.
“Once I saw the ball kick off Walsh — he kind of knocked it down after Salvy blocked it — and I saw Fletcher off third, yeah, I knew the game was over,” Merrifield said. “Salvy has got gold right here on his chest. If there’s somebody you want throwing to a bag, it’s that guy.”