Catch of season tops day of defensive gems

Matos rates it his best

play shifts momentum

July 10, 2005|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

Luis Matos was talking to his wife Friday night, bemoaning the fact he had not made any "spectacular catches" this season. It ate at him, especially since earlier that night, he was unable to track down two balls in the gap that helped the Boston Red Sox break the game open.

He relived that conversation yesterday after a 9-1 victory over Boston, a game the Orioles felt they won because Matos was able to elevate over the center-field wall in the third inning and pull back David Ortiz's potential three-run home run.

"For it to happen the next day, that's why you play this game," Matos said. "You don't know what to expect or what is going to happen to you. That's why I love this game."

It was not only the Orioles' best defensive play on an afternoon filled with them, it was easily the prettiest of the season - and perhaps one of the most important plays in the season's first half.

In the bottom half of that inning, Rafael Palmeiro hit a three-run home run and the Orioles, once seemingly headed to a three-run deficit, led 4-1. They coasted from there and now have a chance to take three out of four from the first-place Red Sox and creep within two games of first place in the American League East at the All-Star break.

Said Palmeiro: "If that ball goes over the fence, it's a whole different game."

"It was like a six-run turnaround," said Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli, who was surprised that Ortiz's shot carried as well as it did. "As soon as Matos went up, the guys on the bench said he caught it. That was a hell of a play, as good as you're going to see."

Matos' shoulders were over the wall when he made the catch. After snagging the ball, the center fielder hit the ground and then, after a dramatic pause, showed the ball, confirming what left fielder Larry Bigbie already knew.

"The key was he didn't drift to the ball," Bigbie said. "He got back to the wall and was able to time it. I didn't think he was going to get to it, but he makes those plays look easy."

Orioles starter Bruce Chen, the biggest beneficiary of the catch, started to raise his hands, but momentarily stopped himself, not knowing whether Matos came down with the ball. When he saw the center fielder open his glove, Chen yelled, "Yes," and walked off the mound and waited outside the dugout to congratulate Matos.

"It was a three-run homer, but all of a sudden, there was three outs and nobody scored," said Chen, summing up his change in fortune. "That play was unbelievable."

After watching his 22nd homer get yanked away, Ortiz got Matos' attention across the dugout. Asked whether he was tipping his cap to the Oriole, the Red Sox's slugger said: "Of course. That was a hell of a catch."

So good that Red Sox manager Terry Francona hoped his team won't see a better one by an opponent the rest of the year.

Matos graded it as the best of his career, but only after watching the TV replay and seeing a picture from a photographer during the game.

"Maybe in the minors, I made one like that, but with [the importance] of the game, I think it is my top one," said Matos, who is 6 feet. "I knew it was going to be close, but when I jumped, I knew I was going to catch it. You just need to get there and do everything perfect. I didn't think it was that high that I jumped, but then I saw the picture. It was pretty high."

The catch overshadowed everything else the Orioles did defensively yesterday, and there was plenty of competition, including another gem from Matos. He sprawled to catch Kevin Millar's liner in the fourth.

Shortstop Miguel Tejada and second baseman Brian Roberts combined to turn a nice double play to end the second, Roberts threw out Kevin Youkilis from behind second in the fifth and Melvin Mora made a nifty pickup on Jason Varitek's one-hopper in the sixth. When Larry Bigbie made a diving catch on Mark Bellhorn's foul ball in the ninth, what Tejada called the team's best defensive game in two years was just about complete.

"As soon as Matos caught the ball, I just told Mora, `We need to do something to try to win this game,'" Tejada said. "That play said we had to win this game. I think that was one of the bigger plays this year. We won the game with that."

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