Stand up and run: The catcher's drill that sealed a win for the Rockies

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

LOS ANGELES – So, at some point in the first hours of every catcher’s career, back when his best friend’s dad or the neighborhood CPA laid a pile of gear at his feet and said, “Have at it,” he was also provided an itemization of his new duties. The list was long and, perhaps at the time, confusing.

The major responsibilities were to catch the baseball (ergo the name of this new position) and return it. Also, to block wayward throws with the nearest body part – a leg, a hip, an arm, a throat, whatever – and then pretend it didn’t hurt. Also, to chase exceedingly wayward throws to the backstop. And, of course, to throw out would-be base stealers. And to determine the perfect pitches to be thrown at the perfect times. If, occasionally, those turned out not to be the perfect pitches, then to console the inconsolable 10-year-old who just lost the league championship by pipe-shotting a fastball to Hugo the exchange student with whiskers and a comb-over. Then, to stand in front of home plate while baserunners hurtle themselves at him. In-between all that, to bang out, like, 250 air squats with plastic and foam and steel strapped to places both public and private.

Then – woah, woah, woah – there’s one more thing. Uhm, you gotta back up first base. Which is waaaay down there. So, yeah, when there’s a ground ball to an infielder, just sprint those 90 feet. Just in case. Hey, could happen.

Colorado’s Tony Wolters became a catcher in the spring of 2013. He’d been a shortstop and second baseman until then, four years into his professional career. The man who offered up the gear and the list of responsibilities was Terry Francona, manager of the Cleveland Indians. Wolters accepted. And on a Monday night in Los Angeles five years later, Wolters found himself dashing to first base with two out in the bottom of the ninth inning and in the wake of Matt Kemp. To his head was strapped a hockey mask. To his body, gear lashed to his legs, chest and head. An overstuffed mitt on his left hand. In his ears, the clattering of all that stuff, jangling at a full run, nearly all of nine innings and 200-and-some pitches (including warmups) also on those legs, the crowd coming to a roar.

Probably for nothing. Almost a hundred times out of a hundred, for nothing. In fact, in all of sports, there may not be a worse ratio of effort to return than the catcher backing up first base. Maybe the kick coverage team in Denver. It’s the baseball equivalent of the flight attendant reminding 250 adults how to work a seat belt, because that’s the job, and a million times in a row it’s unwarranted, and then somebody gets hit in the ear with a wayward buckle or something.

Los Angeles Dodgers’ outfielder Matt Kemp was tagged out to end Monday’s game against the Colorado Rockies thanks to a heads-up play by catcher Tony Wolters. (AP)

And yet on a Monday night in Los Angeles there’s a ground ball to the left side and you do what you do, you stand up and run. You do not think about the professional who is about to catch that ground ball and throw it to first base. You stand up and run. You do not think about the professional at first base who catches baseballs for a living. You stand up and run. You do not think about the futility of it all. You stand up and run.

So Tony Wolters stood up and ran.

“The things that are quote-unquote tough are the things you fall in love with as a catcher,” Colorado’s Chris Iannetta said the next afternoon. “It becomes a habit.”

Iannetta’s been at it since he was 10. Now he’s 35. Mike Redmond, bench coach for the Rockies, was a professional catcher for 18 years, and an unpaid catcher for eight years before that. Across 13 major league seasons, he could remember two occasions in which losing a 90-foot race to a baserunner paid off, out of too many to count. One was against the Atlanta Braves. The other, he couldn’t recall the specifics.

“When I learned, coming up through college, we used to do a drill,” Redmond said. “We worked on backing up first base.”

The drill was all the catchers would line up in foul territory and sprint from home to first base. That was the whole drill. Bright side, it was probably easy to get good at.

“That’s part of being a catcher,” he said. “Those little things people don’t see. Ninety-nine-and-a-half times out of a hundred, you never even realize he’s there.”

That could explain Matt Kemp’s wide-eyed countenance upon seeing Tony Wolters on Monday night. More on that in a moment.

The Rockies led the Dodgers by a run. They’d require one more out. Matt Kemp bounced a four- or five-hopper to the left side. Shortstop Trevor Story fielded it with a backhand, went into his glove for the ball, and went in again. The throw would be delivered on the run, from a slightly lower angle, all of which can get sketchy.

“I kinda got out of the box late,” Wolters said.

Now, if the Rockies are going to win the first National League West title in their history, they’re going to have to win the games they’re leading in the ninth inning, and sometimes that’s going to take the tiny efforts that no one notices, the ones that sometimes everyone notices. To win the games in those dark corners where other teams lose them. Move a runner. Hit a cutoff man. Take a strike. Run hard for, probably, no reason.

“I saw the play and started to take a deeper angle,” Wolters said. “And I started running harder.”

Wolters couldn’t ever recall this exercise working out to more than a bracing jog, followed by a trudge back to his place behind the plate. Though he’d only been doing it for five years.

“You can pretty much count on Tony,” first baseman Ian Desmond said. “It’s funny, but he’s always involved. Once I saw him back there, I wasn’t surprised.”

Desmond grinned.

“You can’t account for that in WAR,” he said.

Tony Wolters found himself dashing to first base with two out in the bottom of the ninth inning and in the wake of Matt Kemp. (AP)

By now you may have guessed that the ball bounced, grazed Desmond’s mitt, and rolled into foul territory toward the first base dugout. Kemp crossed the bag. The Dodgers, having their own issues with piling up the little things so that they become wins, had a baserunner. Had life. And Kemp, ever eager, turned subtly toward second base, thinking he’d caught a break, hoping for another 90 feet. He looked back, saw the ball. Then he saw Tony Wolters.

“I saw Kemp take one step, he glanced at me, went like this,” Wolters said, opening his eyes wider. I thought, ‘Oh shoot, he knows.’ Then I saw the umpire running to the base and I thought, ‘We have a play.’”

Wolters scooped the ball as though his mitt were a dustpan, then lunged and shoveled the ball at the same time, so that when Kemp was thumbed out, both the catcher and the baserunner were left on all fours. The game was over, then and there, because Tony Wolters had stood up and run, because that’s what a catcher does for better or worse, and no one would have given it a thought had the throw been true, or if Wolters had not been there. Except it wasn’t. And he was. It was the one in 99 ½. Or one in a thousand. Or whatever.

“You don’t know when that big play is going to happen,” Redmond said. “That’s why you do it, for that one that helps you win a game.”

Stand up and run.

“That’s the first time,” Wolters said. “I’m glad I backed it up. I definitely wouldn’t have slept as good.”

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