It’s not a position a major league catcher finds himself in often, but when Alex Avila had a chance to record an unassisted out on a runner trying to steal third, he knew exactly what to do.
It was the ninth inning of Friday night’s series opener in Philadelphia, and the Nationals were clinging to a 2-1 lead.
Rhys Hoskins led off the inning against Daniel Hudson with a double off the right field wall, and Travis Jankowski came on as a pinch runner.
But on a 2-2 pitch to the next batter, J.T. Realmuto, Avila momentarily dropped the ball after taking in an outside ball in the dirt, and Jankowski thought he had a chance.
Still, in his secondary lead, Jankowski took a step toward third, but froze, and Avila took charge of the field.
“He would have had a really good jump, obviously, if the ball was a little more in front, and it was more of a pitch that I had to block,” Avila told reporters after the game.
“So, just caught him in the middle there, and usually you’ll see the catcher in that situation will throw the ball, or the runner will end up just picking one base and taking off, that’s probably the reason why you don’t see that play too often, but it’s a pretty fundamental play, at least for a catcher.”
He did what catchers are taught to do from Little League, charge straight toward the runner, and drive him back to the base.
“Just kind of getting towards the front of him as I’m running out there,” Avila said.
‘You don’t see it too much here because typically the runner will take off one way or the other and you get rid of the ball.
“That’s really it, and a little pump fake there to see if he was going to make a decision one way or the other.”
By the time Avila was past the mound, Jankowski made the decision to head back to second, then tried to turn around.
By that time Avila had caught up to him on the infield dirt, and after a bit of a dance, Avila put the tag on, almost halfway between second and third.
“I would have given it up and we probably would have gotten the out still,” Avila said when asked what would have happened had Jankowski gone to third. “But tagging him out was — I’m sure I looked really fast running out there.”
Manager Davey Martinez said Avila played it perfectly.
“Tremendous play. What a heads up play by Avila. A veteran catcher that understands the game very well,” he said. “He did everything right in that moment. He ran him down, made him pick a direction, and stayed with it.
Martinez says his team knows these situations well.
“We work on all those things, rundowns, in Spring Training, so they get it, they understand that’s what you do,” he explained.
Starting pitcher Max Scherzer saw it happen on a 15-second delay in the clubhouse.
“So as I watched it unfold, I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, we got him in a rundown.’ And then all of a sudden Alex tagged him out for 2-unassisted, which I’ve never seen before, so it’s pretty cool to see Alex have to run all the way out there and tag out the runner.
“That just changes the whole [complexion] of the game and really puts us in the driver’s seat.
“Alex isn’t the fastest, so for him to be able to get a 2-U, that’s a pretty good one.”