Most kids daydreamed in their backyards about hitting baseballs impossibly far. Jackie Bradley Jr. spent his formative baseball years intent on running impossibly far to catch them.
"I would see those 'Top 10' plays and I would always try to work on that -- making diving plays, over-the-shoulder plays. I definitely started doing that in middle school," Bradley recalled after a dominant performance in the Red Sox' 5-1 win that included a pair of dazzling catches and three hits. "I was always a Torii Hunter fan -- being able to rob home runs, anticipation, I loved watching him, and Ken Griffey Jr. as well when I was really young. That guy was just electrifying. Seeing those plays that they made, unbelievable.
"I can remember my first huge play. Back where I played in middle school, there were no fences in the outfield. You get burned, you'd run for days. So, being able to just run and pick it up last minute was a very vital asset I had back then."
For Bradley, the act of patrolling the outfield represents the intersection of art, passion, labor and science. The 23-year-old is a case study in how route after route after route can transform a player into a defensive dynamo who can change the course of a game.
Bradley possesses a carefully honed sense of how a baseball travels. He has spent more than a decade contemplating what happens when ball meets bat -- what kind of impact a hitter makes against a given pitch in a given location, what a certain swing path means to its flight, how it will spin and slice and carry, what tricks the wind might play with it.
He cultivates the skill outside of the game, whether through his mesmerizing "power shagging" routine -- in which he chases down balls at full speed during batting practice to simulate game situations -- or by working specifically on no-look routes to the ball, having a coach throw the ball in the air while Bradley will turn his head and run to where he thinks it will land.
And so, when a ball is hit into the air during a game, Bradley can rely on his precise understanding of the physics of a ball's flight in order to have nearly incomparable range. By running to a spot where the ball will land rather than turning back and tracking its flight while on the run, the outfielder -- despite possessing what is viewed by most evaluators as roughly average speed -- covers extraordinary ground, with Sox manager John Farrell suggesting recently that his range is among the very best in the game.
"That's what allows me to do it, because I've always worked on it -- taking my eye off the ball. I feel like if your eye's off the ball, you can run faster," explained Bradley. "Getting to that position, the key is being able to pick it back up. That's also one of the toughest things. A lot of times guys will take their eyes off the ball but then they'll lose it. So, just working on that and kind of knowing where certain guys are going to go."
The payoff for such work was evident on Monday. Bradley, making just his second career start in right field at Fenway, made a pair of remarkable catches that altered the complexion of the game.
In the top of the second, with the game still scoreless, a runner on second and two outs, Bradley got a great break on a sinking Donnie Murphy liner to right field. The ball found its way into the lights, though Bradley was prepared for such an eventuality. And so, he ran to where he figured the ball would end up and went into a slide so that he could find it as it fell below the blinding glare. The execution was flawless, with Bradley making an inning-ending, run-preventing grab.
"I saw it from the start and then I kind of went to it and I had to get down try to get under the lights to pick it back up. If it didn’t go in the lights I probably would’ve just caught it standing up but I had to get down there," said Bradley. "I wasn’t anxious. I kind of knew the vicinity of where the ball was going to land. I just wanted to be around there and hopefully it came out of the lights at the last moment. By me getting under the lights it gave me an opportunity to see it."
Bradley's sense of how a ball travels and how to get to it is so precise that one wonders whether he could catch a ball with his eyes closed. Presented with such a scenario -- had he remained blinded by the light, for instance, on his sliding catch -- would he have been able to haul in the ball?
"I would have been close and I'd have took a stab. I definitely would have been close," said Bradley. "I had a beat on it the whole way, and I definitely wanted to be in the area that way in case I did see it at the last moment."
His next play was even more remarkable. In the top of the third, righty-hitting J.P. Arencibia smoked a ball to deep right field, with considerable slice carrying it toward the corner. With Bradley playing shallow against against the pull-hitting Arencibia, it seemed like miles separated the outfielder from the destination of an almost certain extra-base hit.
Yet as his teammates saw Bradley explode out of the blocks, they realized he had a chance.
"I just see the jumps he gets. For me, one good thing about being catcher is you get to see jumps on balls hit and see how quickly they react," said catcher A.J. Pierzynski. "I don’t know if he’s the fastest guy in world, but jumps he gets on balls, [the way he] gets to top speed right away is impressive."
Bradley, positioned roughly in line with the Pesky Pole at the start of the play, sprinted all the way back to the corner and at the last instant flicked his head back, picked up the ball and stuck out his glove, with the ball plopping into it. It was a play that perhaps a handful of outfielders in baseball make -- so impressive that it was fair to wonder even if teammate (and reigning AL Gold Glove right fielder) Shane Victorino might have been able to reach it.
"That’s one of those plays I definitely try to work at during B.P., one of those balls that’s hit over your head and I just take my eye off it and kind of guess where I feel like the ball is going to be," Bradley said. "I happened to run a pretty good route and there it was waiting on me."
Between those two plays and the three hits he accumulated -- a liner to center, another to the opposite field in left and a bunt single to the right side -- Bradley offered a hint of the kind of impact that became so familiar in his ascent through the farm system but that he had yet to display in such glaring fashion in the big leagues. He'd struggled offensively during spring training, seemingly swinging for power rather than staying with his up-the-middle and all-fields approach that has been a hallmark of his minor league success.
But on Monday, Bradley offered a reminder of who he is as a player, and who he can be -- why he is regarded as a top prospect who can make a two-way impact that transforms a game.
"He’s got the ability to be a great player," said Pierzynski. "Sometimes we try to put people in places ahead of when they’re ready to be where they’re supposed to be at, and Jackie tonight had a great game, had three huge hits for us. It’s good for him to get those hits and get confidence and make plays in the outfield like he made, and do some things. It’s fun to watch because he has all the ability in the world to be a special player, and hopefully this is the start to something special all year.”
It remains to be seen what the year has in store for the 2011 supplemental first-rounder. On Monday, Bradley was able to derive satisfaction enough from one game and two sensational plays.
"That's great. That's what I've always wanted to do, make the spectacular play, being able to help the team out," said Bradley. "I take pride in it and I have a lot of fun doing it. Nothing gets me going more than a great defensive play."