In Friday night's game between the Minnesota Twins and the Seattle Mariners, center fielder Torii Hunter demonstrated once again that he is one of the best, and that he has fun doing it, to boot.
In the fifth inning, with his team up 3-0 with the bases loaded and one out, rookie Francisco Liriano on the mound and Ichiro Suzuki at the plate, Hunter made yet another of his trademark run-stopping, inning-ending, game-changing plays. On a 1-2 pitch, Ichiro drove a line drive to shallow center that looked to be a sure hit, which would have certainly driven in 2 runs. Kenji Johjima, who was on second base, thought so: he took off towards home plate at full speed, knowing that he would need a good jump to beat Hunter's throw to the plate.
However, Hunter charged the ball with a reckless abandon that can't be taught -- rather than step back and play the ball off the hop, he came in at full speed and lunged forward to make an unlikely shoestring grab, barely containing the hard hit ball in the web of his glove, and stood to fire the ball to second base to record an inning ending double play. Rather than 3-2 with men at the corners and only one out, the score stood still at 3-0 and the Twins were suddenly coming back up to the plate. Johjima stood dumbfounded at third base -- how could anyone have made that play?
And Johjima isn't alone; on Tuesday Hunter doubled up Jason Michaels of the Cleveland Indians on a flyball to center -- by throwing him out at first when he took just a bit too much of a jump towards second. Michaels didn't slide into first, and by all rights he shouldn't have had to. It was an impossible play to make. It was written all over his face as he saw the umpire call him out.
And yet Torii Hunter did it. He is driven to creating outs. A few years ago he started leaping over the wall to rob home runs on a regular basis. Then he started making diving catches regularly. His range in center expanded even further than his already quick legs could carry him. And now he's throwing people out on the bases. Frankly, he would be worth almost any salary even if he never got a hit.
And even through his constant drive for perfection, a grin can often be seen stretched from ear to ear. Whether it's because he made a foolish mistake -- such as catching a fly ball to end the inning and firing the ball to home plate as if the runner were going to tag -- or because he tried to trick someone into making a mistake of their own, as he did Friday night in the first inning. Ichiro had led off the game with a base hit, and it was followed by a fly ball into center field. Hunter moved slowly, then stopped. He raised his hands to the sides, as if to say that he had no clue where the ball was. Then at the last moment, he leapt forward and grabbed the ball from the air and checked to see if he had a play at first. Ichiro, who is familiar with Hunter's antics, was standing stolidly on first base, shaking his head.
While both Francisco Liriano and Felix Hernandez performed admirably tonight, dominating the game and terrorizing each other's lineups, Torii Hunter stole the show. If it hadn't been for that play, the game would have been totally different, and his team might not have won. It's no wonder he's on the Yankees' short list to replace the injured Hideki Matsui. He is at the top of his game, and it is obvious from his every move that he's loving it.