“That’s all he does,” says manager John Gibbons. “Really, you expect him to make every play on every ball that’s hit out there.”
“It almost doesn’t surprise you anymore,” says starter Marco Estrada. “He does it so often.”
“I’m not even amazed anymore — he’s made them so routine,” says left fielder Michael Saunders. “It’s like a foregone conclusion now. He’s made so many highlight reel plays, I can’t tell you which one is the best.”
Someday, someone will do a definitive ranking of the absurd, all-out, how-in-the-name-of-gravity-did-he-just-do-that catches Pillar has made over the last year and a half. But for now, you should know that the one he added to the list Tuesday night against the Arizona Diamondbacks is easily one of his best ever. Which is saying something, considering his extensive canon of unbelievable grabs.
“As far as the degree of difficulty on that catch, I think it was a lot harder than what people are going to give him credit for,” says Saunders, who’s played 253 MLB games as a centre fielder. “There was absolutely nothing routine about it.”
It was the fourth inning. The Diamondbacks were up 3-0. Estrada was facing Arizona left fielder Peter O’Brien and threw him a 2-2 curveball down in the zone. O’Brien was out in front but got a good piece of it. Pillar, playing medium depth in centre field, turned and started running.
The ball was only in the air for 4.4 seconds. But it seemed like much longer than that, as Pillar sprinted back to deep centre field, to the warning track, to right at the base of the wall, where he leapt off his left foot, stretched his left arm far above him, and let the ball drop into his mitt, the one that says “auto-catch” on the side of it.
As he caught the ball, the wall caught him. Stiff and unforgiving, Pillar crashed into that blue barrier with the entire right side of his body, his elbow taking the most severe impact and leaving a circular crater about half way up the wall. He fell onto his back, rolled over, and held his glove up as far as he could to signal what everyone already knew — that he’d made the catch.
“Being up close, you could really hear the thud of it. Just the sheer impact of full speed, body on wall,” Saunders said. “The way he puts his body on the line and sacrifices himself to make a play — it’s admirable.”
Immediately, Pillar’s right arm felt like it was on fire. He couldn’t use the arm to pick himself up and it dangled at his side like yours might when you sleep on it the wrong way as he walked away from the crash zone.
“It was just hot. Like a bruise, or like a little hematoma,” Pillar said. “I’m good, though. Always good. It’s going to take a little bit more than that.”
Outfielders will tell you the hardest ball to read is the one that’s hit low and directly at you. For starters, it’s impossible to see it from any kind of angle, which makes it tricky to gauge the ball’s path. Then there’s the speed, which can be deceptive because you can’t get any sense of how much ground it’s covering.
The ball off O’Brien’s bat was one of those balls.
“You basically have to make a split second decision: Am I going in, am I going back or am I staying right where I am,” Saunders said. “And if you make the wrong decision, you’re toast. Take a step back, the ball drops in front of you. Take a step forward, the ball’s over your head. Those plays are by far the toughest ones.”
Pillar remembers a similar line drive during the Blue Jays series in Detroit a couple weeks ago, one he made a bad read on and let fly over his head. The next day he was out in centre field taking line drives off fungos and putting himself in positions during batting practice where balls were being hit directly over him so he could work on his reads.
“It’s the toughest play for any outfielder, especially in centre field,” Pillar said. “You’ve got to make a decision pretty quick.”
What makes catches like Pillar’s even more challenging at Rogers Centre is the lack of a perceptible warning track. There’s a brown cutout around the perimeter of the playing surface, but it’s made of the exact same material as the rest of the outfield. It’s essentially for show. Players have no way of sensing with their feet just how close to the wall they actually are.
Pillar says he never knows exactly where he is when he’s playing the outfield at Rogers Centre, and that he relies on the instincts he’s developed from thousands of innings spent patrolling that area to tell him when to brace for collision.
“I had a feeling it was coming close. I think when I made that final push to catch the ball and I left my feet, I could kind of sense that I was running out of room,” Pillar said, a massive bag of ice wrapped around his elbow. “You just kind of get a sixth sense when you’re out there all the time.”
In order to get better jumps, Pillar tries to anticipate the play by reading where the catcher is set up and how the batter swings at the pitch. It’s a tricky thing to do from 350 feet away, and it can lead to bad jumps if you aren’t careful.
Another important indicator is the sound of the bat. Ballplayers know the difference between a pitch hit on the barrel, which is going to be coming in hot, and one off the end of the bat, which will have less velocity behind it. A broken bat also has its own distinct sound.
Of course, sounds can be deceptive as well. O’Brien didn’t get all of Estrada’s curveball. And at first the Blue Jays starter didn’t think it had a chance.
“I threw a decent pitch. I thought I got the guy out in front,” Estrada said. “And next thing you know, I see Pillar running back and I was like, ‘Oh, this might get out of here.’”
Even with the information he gathered pre-pitch and from the sound of the bat, Pillar’s read wasn’t perfect. They rarely are. You can see him change direction and pace shortly after the ball was put in the air as he tried to get a grasp of where exactly it was heading.
“I constantly look at my surroundings, wherever I’m playing,” Pillar said. “I have a pretty good idea of how far I’m playing. If I’m playing deep or shallow, I know how much room I have. But in the moment, it’s about going to get the ball. And whatever happens, happens.”
It’s also important to remember the wall at Rogers Centre doesn’t give like hockey boards do. It’s stiff and heavy. And once Pillar got his read on the ball, he was in a full out sprint. He wasn’t putting on the brakes as he neared the wall.
“The walls are padded, but it doesn’t matter,” Saunders said. “You’re running full speed into a wall. It’s going to hurt no matter what.”
But when Pillar makes these plays, each one seemingly more preposterous than the last, he doesn’t think about any of that. Remember, he had 4.4 seconds. The ball came off the bat at over 100 mph. There’s no thinking in this. You just go.
“I’ve been out here long enough, I’ve done this long enough, I know what’s at the other end of these plays,” Pillar said, as if he was Mad Max endeavouring into the wasteland to hunt for gasoline. “Sometimes they hurt a little bit more than others. But Marco’s my guy. I’ve gotta go out and make plays for him.”