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David O'BrienDavid O'Brien

Simmons shows again why he’s the best afield

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NEW YORK – It’s not often that a visiting shortstop can do something that leaves New Yorker fans and media slack-jawed in awe these days, not when they’ve spent the year watching, listening, reading about and bidding farewell to Derek Jeter.

When it comes to defense, there is none better than Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who demonstrated that again Wednesday.

When it comes to defense, there is none better than Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who demonstrated that again Wednesday.

O Captain! My Captain! We dare say you never made a play quite like the one that Andrelton Simmons made Wednesday.

The Braves shortstop and Platinum Glove winner has made more sensational, highlight-reel plays in three seasons than many great shortstops will make in a career.

But even by Simmons’ standards, the running, leaping, twisting play and one-hop throw he made from deep in the hole between short and third base – actually from about five steps into the outfield grass – goes at or near the very top of that list. Especially given the circumstances – two out in the eighth, tying run on third, a run already having scored in the inning.

The crowd and the Mets were worked up, excited about coming back from a 3-1 deficit and believing the game would be tied when Travis d’Arnaud’s grounder shot through the left side of the infield. Only it didn’t get past Simmons. Not much does.

• Here’s a link to my game story with the full description of what happened and the reaction of Braves and Mets to the play:

•  Here’s a link to the video of the play.

I’ve been  fortunate enough to see some exemplary shortstop defense on a regular basis in my years as a beat writer covering big-league baseball. Saw Alex Gonzalez and Edgar Renteria when they broke in with the Marlins and each was among the best defensive players at the position. Saw Louis Castillo play second base next to Edgar and form a terrific double-play tandem.

Saw Jimmy Rollins and Rafael Furcal a lot during their peak years. Rollins is special, and underrated. But he’s not Simmons. Furcal’s arm is one of only two I’ve seen live at the shortstop position that I’d put on a level with Simmons’ arm. The other was Shawon Dunston. Neither Dunston nor Furcal had Simmons’ range, footwork or unbelievably good instincts around the base.

Quite simply, Simmons is the best I’ve seen at the position. No question.

I didn’t see Ozzie in person (only on TV, many times). I didn’t see Omar Vizquel much in his prime. I never saw Luis Aparicio or a few others considered to have redefined the position. So I can’t say that Simmons is the best defensive shortstop to ever play the game.

But I’m ready to say I’d put him up against anyone. From any era.

Yes, I believe he’s that good. Even when slowed by a sore shoulder and ankle at times this season, Simmons’ overall defense has still been better than any other shortstop in baseball and I’ll be really surprised if he doesn’t win a second consecutive Gold Glove (and then at least 8-10 more after that).

He’s not a hitter yet, and who knows, he may never hold a candle to the likes of Jeter, Rollins or even Furcal and Renteria when it comes to handling the bat. But strictly defense? He’s beyond them already.

Immediately after Wednesday’s game, d’Arnaud said he hadn’t seen the replay yet. He said he just put his head down and ran as hard as he could to first base, thinking about a few other times  Simmons has thrown him out on strong plays, such as the one where Simmons threw while on his rear end.

D’Arnaud, when asked if he’d seen Wednesday’s play, said no but, “I heard. In slow motion, it looks like he had no chance. Then, at the last moment, he just reached for it, got it and made a perfect throw.”

Here’s what some other writers said about the play:

The (Newark) Star-Ledger:

NEW YORK — It looked like it would be a hit. It seemed almost destined to be. The Mets would tie the game, Travis d’Arnaud would get an RBI and the home team would get new life at Citi Field.

That formula did not account for the wonder and wizardry of Andrelton Simmons…

The New York Post:

In this season of Derek Jeter tributes, Andrelton Simmons provided his own on Wednesday, and it helped cost the Mets a game.

 The Atlanta shortstop made a spectacular play with the tying run on third base and two out in the eighth inning of the Braves 3-2 win over the Mets at Citi Field….

The (New York) Daily News:

What a difference a good shortstop can make. Travis d’Arnaud’s ground ball seemed to have found a gap, but Andrelton Simmons closed on the ball quickly. He backhanded it deep in the hole, jumped and fired across the field to nail the Mets’ catcher at first. The Braves shortstop not only gunned d’Arnaud with his “Jeterian” jump-and-throw play, but he also killed the Mets’ eighth-inning rally.

And from a posting of the video at USAToday.com

The Braves’ shortstop is about the best defensive player in the world, and he picked a good spot to show off his skills on Wednesday. The Mets got the tying run to third base in the eighth inning, and catcher Travis d’Arnaud slapped a grounder that looked certain to find the hole between third base and Simmons.

Fooled you! There is no hole between third base and Simmons.

• J-Hey’s perspective: Last night I asked Jason Heyward, a fellow former Gold Glove winner, about his perspective of the play from right field, and whether the play seemed as special from there as it was from where we sat in the pressbox:

“Yeah, for me especially because I could see the whole play happen,” Heyward said. “I could see the runner coming down and everything. And then watch Free pick it. (For Simmons) to get to the ball, obviously, is one thing, and to jump, turn and throw is one thing. But for him to put the ball in the area where Free can pick it and we can get the runner out, that’s an unbelievable play.

“He’ll tell you he wants to make it every single time, that he’s going to try to make it every single time, even if Eric Young is running there he’s going to try to make the play.”

• Simmons’ metrics: Mark Simon at ESPN.com points out that while Simmons doesn’t have the otherworldy defensive stats he compiled  in 2013, he still was tied with Cincy’s Zack Cozart for the major league lead among shortstops with 21 Defensive Runs Saved this season before Wednesday. (So I would assume Simmons has the lead after The Play on Wednesday.)

Simon wrote today: “Baseball Info Solutions has a plus-minus system in which it looks at balls hit to different areas of the field and rates how much above or below average a player is against those balls. Simmons is 24 plays better than average against balls hit in the area defined as the shortstop-third base hole (he finished last season a hair above that, at 27 plays above average). By comparison, Cozart is tied with Alexi Amarista for second-best among the 10 shortstops with the most Defensive Runs Saved this season. They rate only seven plays better than average on balls hit to that area.”

Simon also noted that Simmons’ 62 Defensive Runs Saved over the 2013-2014 seasons is the most in the majors in that span, ahead of Mets center fielder Juan Lagares’ 58.

Back to the regular stuff: Simmons’ magical moment last night provided a welcome distraction from the recent non-stop talk about the Braves’ offensive woes and their fading NL East title hopes and position in the wild-card playoff picture.

So let’s get back to that now.

The Braves are 11-8 with a 2.81 ERA since their eight-game losing skid, including 8-4 with a stingy 2.26 ERA in their past 12 games. They’ve hit .248 with 76 runs and 20 homers in that 19-game stretch since the eight-game skid, and they’ve totaled a decent 54 runs and 14 homers in the past 12 games.

However, the Braves have batted just .211 with four homers and 21 runs while going 3-4 their past seven games, and eight of those runs came in one game. They’ve scored three or fewer runs in six of those past seven games, and totaled five or fewer hits three times in that period.

• Tonight’s matchup: It’ll be recently resurgent Mike Minor (5-8, 4.90) facing Mets lefty Jon Niese (7-9, 3.47), who’ll make his second start against the Braves since breaking Heyward’s jaw with a fastball on Aug. 21, 2013. Heyward wasn’t in the lineup when Niese faced them in Atlanta on April 18, when manager Fredi Gonzalez chose to rest the right fielder.

Mike Minor took a no-hitter into the eighth inning last week at Cincinnati. He'll try to end the Braves' road trip on a   strong note against the Mets Thursday.

Mike Minor took a no-hitter into the eighth inning last week at Cincinnati. He’ll try to end the Braves’ road trip on a strong note against the Mets Thursday.

Given the urgency of the Braves’ situation, and the way that Heyward is playing now including Wednesday’s leadoff homer to start the game, I’d be very surprised if he weren’t in the lineup tonight, particularly given his success in the past against Niese. More on that in a moment.

Minor is 1-1 with a 2.53 ERA and .176 opponents’ average in his past three starts, after going 2-3 with a 7.33 ERA in his previous 10. He was four outs from a no-hitter Friday at Cincinnati, and ended up getting no decision after allowing just one hit, one run and four walks with five strikeouts in 7 2/3 innings of that Braves win.

The lefty had been 1-2 with a 7.20 ERA and .324 opponents’ average in his previous six road starts before that dominant performance against the Reds.

Minor is 4-2 with a 4.86 ERA in 11 starts against the Mets, including 2-1 with a 3.08 ERA and .209 opponents’ average in his past six including five quality starts. Minor has no decisions and a 4.76 ERA in two starts against the Mets this season, with 11 hits, six runs and three homers allowed in 11 1/3 innings.

David Wright is 6-for-23 with three homers against Minor. Will Wright play tonight after missing first two games of the series with neck spasms? We’ll know shortly.

Ruben Tejada is 8-for-22 against Minor, Juan Lagares is 4-for-11, Lucas Duda is 6-for-19 with a homer, and Curtis Granderson is 3-for-12 with a homer. Daniel Murphy, who also missed the first games of the series with a calf strain, is 3-for-21 with a homer against Minor.

Now, about Niese: He is 2-1 with a 3.20 ERA in his past three starts, after going 0-4 with a 5.76 ERA and .324 opponents’ average in his previous four. In 10 home starts this season, he’s 3-3 with a 3.05 ERA and has allowed three earned runs or fewer in each.

Niese is 6-5 with a 3.48 ERA in 16 starts against the Braves, including 0-2 with a 5.31 ERA and .293 opponents’ average in four starts against them since the beginning of the 2013 season. He’s allowed only one run in each of his past two starts against them, with nine hits, six walks and 16 strikeouts in 13 innings of those two games.

In his only start against them this season, the lefty allowed four hits and three walks with seven strikeouts  in six innings of an April 18 loss in Atlanta.

Against Niese, Heyward is 9-for-24 with two homers, eight RBIs and the previously mentioned broken jaw. Mets nemesis Freddie Freeman is 9-for-30 and also has two homers against Niese, Justin Upton is 7-for-19, Gerald Laird is 4-for-7, Simmons is 5-for-13, and Chris Johnson is 4-for-15. B.J. Upton is 1-for-9 with five strikeouts against the lefty.

Heyward has hit .164 (20-for-122) against lefties this season with four extra-base hits (two homers), 10 walks, 30 strikeouts, a .243 OBP and .230 slugging percentage. Against righties he’s hit .305 (111-for-364) with 30 extra-base hits (nine homers), 48 walks, 55 strikeouts, a .387 OBP and .445 slugging percentage.

Over the previous three seasons, Heyward had a slash line of .226/.294/.368 in 451 at-bats vs. lefties, and .266/.354/.473 in 914 at-bats vs. righties.

By the way, Heyward’s leadoff homer Wednesday was his fourth leadoff homer this season and second against fellow Atlanta-area native Zack Wheeler. Heyward also did it to him on April 9, when he led off the bottom of the first with a homer in a 4-3 Braves win at Turner Field.

It was also the Braves’ only homer in their past 10 games against the Mets. They had five homers in their first five games against the Mets this season, and had none in the next nine until Heyward’s blast last night.

Wheeler had been 6-0 with a 2.12 ERA in his past 10 starts and won four consecutive home starts before Wednesday, when he took the loss while allowing just four hits, three runs (two earned runs) and three walks in seven innings.

• Etc.

Freddie Freeman’s past 21 games against the Mets: .398 (33-for-83) with 10 doubles, four homers, 21 RBIs, .452 OBP, .663 slugging percentage….

Tonight will be the Braves’ 27th start against a lefty this season, fewest in the major leagues. They are 16-10 against lefty starters, fifth-best winning percentage in the majors. Chris Johnson leads the majors with a .416 average against lefties, and Justin Upton is ninth in the NL with a .326 average against lefties….

B.J. Upton hasn’t had a hit in more than a week, but it still might have been his best week of the month. He is 0-for-12 in five games beginning Aug. 20, but has six walks with three strikeouts for a .333 OBP in that span. For the month, the Braves center fielder is hitting a league-worst .115 (7-for-61)  in 20 games with two homers, four RBIs, 12 walks, 22 strikeouts and a .260 OBP and .246 slugging percentage.

In closing: One more day and night in New York. Let’s close with another tune from Simone Felice, whom I was fortunate to see perform here in Manhattan on the off day Monday. You can hear it by clicking here.

“NEW YORK TIMES” by Simone Felice 

Simone Felice

Simone Felice

Eddie Blackbird, Eddie Blackbird, Eddie Blackbird, that’s the Indian’s name
Out in South Dakota, he stole a gold Range Rover and he drove it over, the empty plains
While Apache pilots hunt the River Tigress in the laughing silence of the desert night
And the price of cocaine, on a favourite ball game I read it all baby in the New York Times.

A pervert from Jersey with a thirty-thirty, found them girls rehearsing in a ballet school
And when he bust in and point his musket he turned their lilly white muslin into bright red blooms

So as I read it here, on a coffee street pier
You know I can’t help but hear them buildings fall
And the way they came down, and way they jumped out,
there’s no baseball glove in town
That’s gonna catch them all.

So every New Year, we come to Times Square and we all howl there when the big ball drops.
So don’t trust your junk mail, don’t touch the third rail, and baby don’t’ you dare hail the King of pop.
‘Cos the day they found him and brought his body in, the things that Doctor did was enough to strike you blind.

So me and my Lilly white lover, oh and all my brothers, never make the cover of the New York Times

 

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