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Marco Estrada was on the ropes in the fourth inning of Tuesday night’s series opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Blue Jays’ typically steadfast righty had just walked Rickie Weeks Jr. and then gave up a long home run to Yasmany Tomas.
The speed of the ball off the bat was tracked at 102 m.p.h. and was headed for the top of the centre-field wall. Batted balls of a similar profile land for hits more than 80 per cent of the time, according to MLB’s Statcast data.
But with Kevin Pillar patrolling the outfield, no hit is ever a sure thing. A split-second after the ball jumped off the bat Pillar was already sprinting towards the wall, reaching a top speed of 17 m.p.h. — again, according to Statcast, which calculated Pillar’s route efficiency at a near-perfect, 97.8 per cent.
What MLB’s newfangled player-tracking technology cannot measure, however, are the sheer guts it took Pillar to essentially disregard the existence of the wall he must have known he would hit in order to make the catch.
The catch was less flashy than the headlong diving grabs that have earned him his Superman nickname. But this one may have been among his most difficult, when you think of the combination of speed, timing and reckless abandon required.
“The toughest play for any outfielder, especially in centre field, is the ball hit right at you, somewhat low,” Pillar said afterward, adding he always tries to have a sense of where he is in relation to the wall and other obstacles when he’s in the field. “But in the moment it’s about going to get the ball and whatever happens after happens.”
In the bottom half of the inning Pillar opened the scoring for the Jays, driving a two-run double to the wall to cut into the D-Backs’ lead. He may have let his status as MVP of the inning get to his head, however, as he concluded it by being thrown out in an ill-fated effort to steal third.
Estrada was pulled after six innings when a nagging back pain flared up, manager John Gibbons said. Estrada, who started the season on the disabled list due to a back injury, aggravated his back when taking swings before an appearance in an inter-league game.
“I should know better,” he said.
He said he noticed his fastball velocity going down and “I left a few pitches up because of it,” including the “terrible changeup,” which Tomas crushed for a two-run homer.
Gibbons admitted he holds his breath every time Pillar makes the kind of catch he did on Tuesday, fearing for a serious injury.
“It hasn’t happened yet,” he said, before knocking on the wooden podium.
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