Champ Stuart is fast. Very fast. Thursday night in Savannah, Stuart scored from second on a sacrifice fly to center field, turning the routine into the extraordinary.
The 21-year-old Stuart — hitting .295 with a .411 OBP this season — who had missed the previous four games with a strained hip flexor, walked to lead off the fourth inning, later stealing second. With Stuart on second, Savannah’s first baseman Dominic Smith lifted a flyball to the front of the warning track in nearly straight-away center.
At the catch, Stuart took off toward third. The Charleston RiverDogs’ centerfielder, Dustin Fowler, did not make a strong throw back to the infield. In shallow centerfield, ‘Dogs second baseman Gosuke Katoh tried to play Fowler’s throw on the shorthop. He did not pick it cleanly. Stuart made the turn at third and headed home. By the time Katoh retrieved the ball off the grass, he had no chance to make a throw on Stuart, who scored standing up.
Stuart and Savannah manager Luis Rojas, who also coaches third base, had talked about how Stuart could use his speed as a weapon, but they had never discussed this play, because it happens so rarely. Instead, they got in sync as the play unfolded.
Champ Stuart: “I stole second earlier in the at-bat and Dominic was hitting and he have a lot of power, so I saw him hit a deep fly ball to centerfield, and I knew the centerfielder had to go back on the play….. I wanted to go, but I didn’t know if Luis was going to give me the opportunity. In my head, when the ball went back, in my head, I’m going, ‘I’m going home on this play, regardless,’ because I never did it, and I wanted to do it.”
Rojas: “As soon as the ball left the bat, I was looking at Champ’s positioning just to see how he was going to read it. It’s tough to coach the tag [up] and [going] halfway, it’s usually the player’s decision, how far he’s going to be off the bag to read it. That’s something that we work on early, in BP or extra work baserunning, but in the game, it’s something that’s his decision. He kept his distance, saw that the centerfielder had a shot (to catch the ball), so he was close to the bag.”
Dustin Fowler, the Yankees’ 18th-round pick in the 2013 amateur draft out of West Laurens HS, was playing centerfield on Thursday night for the just thirty-third time as a professional. The Yankees have also given him 21 starts in right and 18 in left in his professional career that is just over a year old.
Fowler explained what he remembered: “The ball just carried a lot and took me all the way to the track. … I was moving backward. The ball was carrying me [toward] the fence. I caught it, and had to reset my feet and get my momentum going back to the infield.”
Fowler did not get behind the baseball before he caught it. This meant, 1. he needed time to get set before he could make a throw back towards the infield, and 2. when he made a throw, he did not get much on it.
Both Rojas and Stuart noticed.
Stuart, on what he saw: “So as I was tagging, I saw him catch the ball on the warning track, but his momentum was still taking him back, so my first three… four steps, I ran as hard as I could. … I knew he wouldn’t have as much on the throw because he was still going back. … In my mind, I had started rounding third base real hard as I was tagging up, but I never expected to go [home] exactly. I was going to make it a point to go, but I didn’t know if Luis was going to allow me to go or not.”
As soon as Stuart started running, Rojas became Stuart’s eyes in the outfield. “When [Fowler] made the catch and [Stuart] went to tag, I was ready,” Rojas said. “I was ready the whole time, as soon as he left the bag.”
Rojas was watching Stuart and Fowler’s toss back towards the infield.
“The throw from the center fielder was going to dictate a lot for the send [to home],” Rojas said. “I was reading the throw. If it was going to be chest high, I was not going to send him because we had the cleanup hitter hitting behind Smith, and that was only the first out in the inning. But I saw the ball short-hopping the shortstop, and I just kept him going.”
The Gnats’ cleanup hitter, Matt Oberste, was on an 11-game hit streak entering the game, one he would extend to 14-straight with hits in all three games of the series.
“Now, it comes to the equation where you have to look ahead to see what’s going to happen on the relay and the timing of Stuart hitting third base and the view from the second baseman,” the manager said. “[The second baseman has] a pretty good view, throwing from the middle of the field there. He’s just got to throw it over the mound there, it’ll be a one-hopper. … If it’s a good throw from the centerfielder, with good tempo, I would have held [Stuart] and let Oberste drive him in on the next play.”
Fowler: “I sent it in to the cutoff man, and when he turned around and got it, [Stuart] was scoring.”
Stuart left second with the intention of rounding third base hard and forcing Rojas to put up a stop sign. Rojas too, was trying to draw a throw home from the RiverDogs in the hope that a poorly executed relay would lead to an error, allowing Stuart to score. Stuart did not know it, but before he reached third, Rojas, watching the outfield and Stuart, had done the quick math and decided to send him.
“I would have held him if the Dogs had gotten a good relay throw, but since there was no relay throw, there was never a thought other than sending him,” Rojas said.
Stuart first saw Rojas sending him home right before he arrived at third, “about one step before I hit third base,” he said.
“I had to look at him, and look at the base. I looked at him, and he didn’t give me the stop sign,” Stuart said. “I didn’t break stride. They tell us don’t stop until they tell you. I was going to keep going until his hand go up.”
Rojas, again, praised Stuart for his aggressiveness, his line around third, and maintaining his speed.
“There’s a lot of things involved in that play to keep him going toward home plate,” he said. “He was ready to go. You could tell from the speed that he kept, and the angle that he got. I mean, he had the turn. He didn’t go straight from second to third. His turn made everything. He did the biggest part – 95 percent, me being the eyes was five percent.”
Even after he made the turn towards home, Stuart was still not sure he was getting the green light from Rojas.
“And rounding third, I was looking Luis dead in his eyes, to say ‘Send me!’ regardless of the play, because I’d never had it happen to me before,” Stuart said. “He looked at me, and I looked at him back, and it felt like that awkward moment for like three or four steps and then he just kept waving me. And I was like ‘Oh, it’s going to actually happen.'”
After rounding third, Stuart sprinted home.
“I’m running as hard as I could, getting ready to slide, looking for the next batter batter at the plate, [Oberste], to see if he’s going to tell me to slide — away, or inside — but he just told me to stay up,” Stuart said. “I’m just like, ‘Wow, I couldn’t believe I did it relatively easy.'”
Stuart also trusted Rojas, which allowed him to keep running hard.
“He didn’t stop at all. He was reading me. He did a good job reading me the whole time, not looking back. That allowed him to stay at one speed and score from second base,” Rojas said.
So, Just How Fast is Stuart?
Fowler: “He’s probably one of the fastest kids I’ve ever seen … Anything is possible when he’s on the bases.”
Rojas: “The game-changing speed that he has, he carries it pretty well, especially on the bases, moreso than in the outfield. On the bases, he’s really cocky. He challenges. … [We've talked about] how valuable [his speed can be] in his career; to a team right now and when he moves up a level and even the big league team when he gets there. He’s a guy who can get walked and, it’s a double.”