ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Maybe the best defensive play of the afternoon was the double play in the second inning. Maybe it was third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes’ diving stop. Maybe it was second baseman Diego Castillo’s diving stop. Maybe it was either of shortstop Kevin Newman’s insanely difficult plays on the run. There are good defensive games. For the Pirates, Sunday was a defensive masterclass.
Following two afternoons in the doldrums, the Pirates broke into the win column, 9-4, against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium thanks in large part to one of the most aesthetically pleasing exhibitions of glovework in the Derek Shelton era. No ball felt uncatchable. No play felt unmakeable.
“I don’t know if you can play defense any better than [how] we played defense today,” Shelton said.
There were no shortage of defensive gems, but the double play that Pittsburgh turned in the second inning was the most important of the afternoon. With a runner on third and the Pirates already trailing by three, they executed a picturesque 5-4-3 double play, one that ended with first baseman Michael Chavis scooping a throw from Castillo to neutralize the threat.
If Chavis doesn’t pick Castillo’s throw, the Pirates go down four runs. Instead, they maintained the three-run deficit. That set the stage for a five-run third inning in which they took a lead they’d never relinquish, a frame that was highlighted by Chavis’s second career grand slam. As the adage goes, a defensive gem one inning, some offensive boom the next.
The afternoon as a whole could best be defined by all of Pittsburgh’s infielders exhibiting excellence on both sides of the ball.
Newman doubled home a run to extend his hitting streak to eight games dating back to last season, then made a phenomenal play to rob Tyler O’Neill of a single. Newman ranged up the middle, stabbed at O’Neill’s grounder, spun and fired a perfect throw into the awaiting glove of Chavis. As impressive as that play was, it somehow wasn’t his most difficult.
Newman and Chavis teamed up to nearly complete another defensive gem in the bottom of the seventh, one that was ultimately overturned. Newman, shaded up the middle, backhanded Tommy Edman’s weakly-hit grounder sidearmed a throw as his momentum took him toward third base. Newman’s throw had more than enough zip to get to Chavis, who had to go into full splits with Edman speeding down the line. Chavis recalled being mesmerized by Newman’s ability to not just make the play, but make a perfect throw.
“I didn’t even get to see the one against Edman, because it was hit pretty awkwardly,” Chavis said. “I took a jab step, and by the time I got to the bag, he was already releasing it. I was like, ‘How did you get there?’ Much less transfer the ball that fast.
“I told him once I got in the dugout that the carry on that throw was unbelievable. Usually, those types of wild throws, the first thing I think is to stay low, get ready for an erratic throw. Not only was it on the money, but it was at my chest. I didn’t have to pick it. I didn’t have to stretch. I was just like, ‘Wow, that was cool.’”
Of his splits, Chavis said he didn’t even know he had that flexibility in him until a game at first base with the Red Sox, when his legs made their maiden stretch.
“For the physical fitness test like in middle school, I was running the mile, doing the push-ups, but the sit-and-reach was never really my thing,” Chavis said. “It’s one of the things that when I do, I’m weirdly proud about it, because it’s something I had to work for.”
If Newman wasn’t enough, there were Hayes and Castillo, who both dove to snatch line drives. What made Hayes’ afternoon just a little sweeter was his exhibition of defensive magic in front of Nolan Arenado, his primary competition for the National League Gold Glove Award at third base — and who made his first error of the season, at that.
Not every game will be laden with so many highlights, but Sunday could’ve been a peek into a defensive formula that the Pirates will employ more often. Hayes and Newman are among the best defensive third base-shortstop combinations in baseball right now. Castillo exudes the panache of a veteran. And Chavis? Well, that flexibility isn’t going away. Even if he doesn’t have to use it all the time.
“Everybody’s making plays, and I’m just standing there,” Chavis said with a laugh.