Kipnis takes flight to rob Yanks of extra-base hit
Diving third-inning grab vs. Headley helped set tone for Bauer's outing
By William Kosileski
CLEVELAND -- Jason Kipnis' first postseason game in center field featured a catch that looked like he'd been playing center his whole career.
By the time Kipnis lifted his face out of the turf at Progressive Field, having corralled Chase Headley's drive to gap in left-center field, teammate Trevor Bauer was pumping his fist from the mound and fans in the left-field bleachers were roaring overhead.
"I think that's the biggest play of the game," Bauer said of the catch, which was a key early moment in the Indians' 4-0 win over the Yankees in Game 1 of the American League Division Series presented by Doosan.
Kipnis is still in the midst of making a transition from second base to center field after his return from the disabled list on Sept. 17. Thursday marked only his 12th Major League game in center.
While there have been some questions surrounding Kipnis' ability to play the position, as well as manager Terry Francona's thought process behind the position change, Kipnis silenced the naysayers with the unbelievable diving catch.
"I thought that was good," Francona said of the catch. "Not only for getting an out, but I thought it was good for his confidence. Again, we wouldn't put him out there if we didn't think it was going to be fine, but it was still a nice play."
The Yankees, still searching for their first hit off Bauer as Headley stepped to the plate to lead off the third inning, thought they had it when Headley sent a 1-1 pitch towards the left-center gap.
Kipnis, an outfielder in college who eventually moved to second in the Minors, judged the depth, then darted across the outfield to cover 88 feet in 4.7 seconds to make the all-out diving catch.
"At that point, it's a very close game," Bauer said. "If he doesn't catch that, it's a double, and now you have your leadoff guy on second. Like I said, one baserunner in the postseason is a momentum swing. So that takes a guy on second and a high-stress inning and turns it into nobody on and a low-stress inning, which is huge."
Kipnis said that he has been waiting for an opportunity to make a play of this fashion, and he was happy that it came on this big stage.
"I think the excitement comes right after I feel it go in the glove," Kipnis said. "I think right when it goes in the air like that, I think there is a holy time to go, like, 'Here we go.' I'm like, 'Get there, get there. Get to the spot.' The game of baseball is exciting for me. I love to play this game, and I love the opportunity to showcase how much fun I have playing it.
"It definitely helps. I think every game, the confidence is going to grow."
Statcast™ rated Kipnis' grab as a four-star catch (catch probability between 26 percent and 50 percent). The play had a 26 percent catch probability based on how far he had to run and the hang time on the ball. But Kipnis made it work, stretching out to cover the final feet before bouncing off the ground.
"I broke on the ball, he broke on the ball," Indians left fielder Lonnie Chisenhall said. "I peeked over at him. He looked like he was going to be aggressive. So I let him have it. It's nice to see him go after balls like that and make plays. Especially since he's not been out there a long time. It's a huge play in the game."
Bauer was elated. So was the crowd, which borrowed a tradition from Yankee Stadium counterparts by chanting Kipnis' name as the inning continued.
"I was pretty pumped up about that," Bauer said. "Yeah, I think there's some people that have kind of doubted his ability in center field given that he hasn't played a whole lot out there, but hopefully that puts that narrative to rest. We all trusted that he could go out there and play defense like that."
William Kosileski is a reporter for MLB.com based in Cleveland. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.