Herrera has come a long way as center fielder

Hard work pays off during catch to rob Pillar of extra bases

Herrera has come a long way as center fielder

TAMPA, Fla. -- The fastball caught a little too much of the plate and Blue Jays leadoff hitter Kevin Pillar crushed it. On the Phillies' bench, coach Juan Samuel had the same reaction as everybody else: The ball would carry over the head of center fielder Odubel Herrera for extra bases.

Except that Herrera was off with the crack of the bat. He raced onto the warning track, extended his glove and made a backhanded catch a moment before slamming into the padded wall.

The sellout crowd roared. Samuel, who works with the team's outfielders in addition to coaching third, was pleased. This was tangible evidence in Saturday's 8-5 win that all those lonely early morning workouts, while the grass is still dewy and the gates are still locked, were paying off.

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Herrera was primarily a second baseman when the Phillies took him in the Rule 5 Draft before the 2015 season and converted him to the outfield. It's not a stretch to say that, a year ago, he likely wouldn't have made that catch.

"I feel good that a lot of the hard work we've been putting in allowed that play to happen. But I know I need to continue to work on going back on balls," Herrera said, with Samuel interpreting, on Sunday.

"It's gratifying to do that after putting so much work in. I feel that I've improved in a few areas, but I know that I need to continue to polish my defense out there. The only thing in my mind is to try to get better all the time."

Samuel didn't want to overwhelm Herrera last season. This spring he added more advanced defensive techniques, such as going back to the wall and running to a spot without watching the ball.

"He's come a long way. But I'm not satisfied," Samuel said. "I'd like to see more of him going to the ball. I just wanted him to be more comfortable so he doesn't even have to think about it. At times I see him thinking, 'I'm going to hit it.' I don't want him to feel like there's a wall there and, 'I'm going to get hurt.' He shouldn't play that way.

"Until I can see him [consistently] going back there with confidence and he knows he's not going to get hurt when he runs into the wall, that's when I'll know he's got it."

That's why the play Herrera made to rob Pillar was so encouraging.

"I was looking at him and seeing if he's got the route he needed to take. Which he did. And when he caught it, I was like, 'Wow, that's a great play.' Because it was over his head and I didn't think he had a shot at it. But he got back there," Samuel said. "That's what you want. And I saw him take his eyes of the ball and look at the wall a couple times, then keep going. And I said, 'That's it right there.'"

Samuel tells Herrera that he needs to get to the spot first, that he can't arrive at the same time as the ball. He tells him to notice when he hits the warning track. He tells him that he probably has three steps once he hits the dirt. He tells him that if the ball is still in the air after the second step that it's time to peel off and play the carom.

There had been some speculation after the Phillies claimed Peter Bourjos off waivers that he would play center and Herrera would move to left. The inclination now seems to be to leave Herrera where he is. That could change when fleet prospect Roman Quinn is ready, but the philosophy is to avoid shuttling him back and forth if possible.

Herrera's falling grab

Herrera and Samuel have become close, despite a 30-year age difference. They're both Latino, which is part of it. But Samuel was also a second baseman who was moved to the outfield. He can fully appreciate the transition Herrera is trying to make.

"He's such a hard worker," Samuel said.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.