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Phil Rogers

Hamilton fast becoming an impact player

Defenses having trouble keeping up with Reds rookie's speed on the bases

Hamilton fast becoming an impact player

CHICAGO -- Billy Hamilton didn't just stretch a single into a double leading off against the Cubs. He actually stretched a groundout into a double, and who knew that could be done?

Second baseman Darwin Barney reached Hamilton's grounder into the hole between him and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, but the ball did something few balls ever do. It deflected off the Gold Glover's glove, continuing on into right field. Hamilton almost collided with Rizzo rounding first, but he didn't stop until he was on second, as the ball died quickly in the wet grass.

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"I was hoping it would get through," Hamilton said. "I wasn't expecting to get a double, but I thought it would at least be a base hit or he'd make a great play. I put it in a perfect spot."

Maybe. But it's also true Barney was rushing, which is what you better be doing when Hamilton and the Reds are in town. Manager Bryan Price has seen opposing players react like this all season.

"If you follow us for a whole season, you see the mistakes that infielders and pitchers make because of his speed, rushing to get rid of the ball, rushing pitches to the plate," Price said. "He's given our second, third and fourth hitters better pitches to hit with him on base. There's a uniqueness to it that's special ... He just creates a certain sense of panic."

Indeed Hamilton does. That was evident throughout a 6-1 victory for the Reds on Monday night at Wrigley Field.

Hamilton drove in the winning run in a five-run, two-out rally in the ninth inning. He lined a single up the middle to cap an impressive at-bat against Hector Rondon -- but only after his squaring to bunt had contributed to an inside pitch from Rondon sailing past catcher Welington Castillo.

Chris Heisey, running on the play, reached second without a throw, and it was clear Rondon had become unsettled. He would stay that way until he was removed after a Devin Mesoraco grand slam into the basket in left-center.

Consider this baseball's version of death by 1,000 paper cuts -- not that Hamilton won't beat you in traditional ways along with those that go with being the sport's fastest player.

"It's a phenomenon," Price said about how Hamilton disrupts opponents. "I've never seen anything like it."

As the guy who stole 155 bases in the Minor Leagues in 2012, Hamilton has attracted plenty of attention the last few years. He was a focus when he was promoted to Cincinnati last September and again in Spring Training, yet he may not be getting enough credit these days for developing into a complete player, making a difference both with his work as a leadoff man and his excellent work in center field.

Hamilton was 2-for-5 and reached base three times in Monday's series opener. He's batting .276 with 31 stolen bases, including a .304 average after he started the season in a 6-for-43 slump that began with four strikeouts on Opening Day.

"We're seeing really the evolution of a tremendous player, in my opinion," Price said. "He affects the game offensively and defensively like very few."

In a three-game series last week in Pittsburgh, Hamilton repeatedly invited hyperbole. He made great catches all over PNC Park, including one that got his chin acquainted with the wall. Hamilton got huge hits and stole bases. But he also did something that you almost never see.

With the Reds leading 3-2 in the seventh inning last Tuesday, Hamilton found himself in a 1-2 count against left-handed reliever Justin Wilson. The infielders had been in on the grass, in part because Hamilton had bunted for a single in the third inning, but second baseman Josh Harrison retreated to the dirt once Hamilton got his second strike.

Unfortunately for the Pirates, Hamilton was paying attention. He pushed a bunt past Wilson and Harrison couldn't get to it quickly enough. Hamilton then stole second and scored on a Joey Votto single.

It's fair to say the two-strike bunt got the attention of the Cubs' advance scouts.

"I've seen guys bunt with two strikes before," said Rick Renteria, the Cubs' manager. "There are guys proficient at it. You know those are confident guys."

After all, foul off the bunt attempt and you're out. But get a few of those down and you will always be in the head of the opposing teams, even when you're down to your last strike.

"He did it in Spring Training," Price said of the two-strike bunt. "It's one of those things a player like Billy needs to continue to do. He needs to show that he can do it. He needs to show our opponents and the advance scouts that he will do it, so it keeps those infielders in there. It creates a lot more opportunity. He's so fast he can still bunt with the infield in, the corner infielders in and he can also create more space for him to drive balls through the infield, with the infielders closer to him."

Hamilton got to the Cubs with a bunt on Monday. It was on a 1-1 pitch in the seventh, with two outs. Reliever Brian Schlitter fielded it cleanly and snapped off a good throw to Rizzo. But like Barney earlier, Rizzo seemed spooked by Hamilton's speed. He missed the throw.

The saving grace for the Cubs after this forced error was that Welington Castillo then made a quick, strong throw to catch Hamilton as he tried to steal third base. He's 31-for-40 on stolen-base attempts so far.

"He's getting on base," Renteria said before the game. "He steals second, steals third, with nobody out, he's already on third base and can score on a sac fly, a wild pitch, a base hit. It creates a lot of havoc. The thing is, you just keep him off the bases."

A shortstop through most of his Minor League career, Hamilton didn't become a center fielder until last season. He has proven to be a quick study, and he went into Monday's game ranked sixth among Major League regulars at his position in range factor and eighth in defensive WAR (0.8).

"I get to see him every day, except for the days I'm foolish enough to put him on the bench, and [he's] definitely special," Price said. "I don't see anybody else as often as I see Billy, but he's been spectacular. It doesn't surprise me at all that he's covering that type of ground. He's making the routine play and the spectacular play. He's throwing accurately and with a tremendous carry on the ball. He's been a sensational defender."

Hamilton is becoming a dangerous hitter, too.

"I'm very comfortable now," Hamilton said. "Early in the season, the first few games, I felt like I wasn't a big leaguer. I was just here to be here. Now I feel like I'm supposed to be here. I'm doing whatever I can to help the team to win. It's all about wins from now on. The confidence I have now, it's good."

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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