Hamilton putting charge in Reds' playoff hunt
Speedster off to unprecedented start, but will he find spot on postseason roster?
CINCINNATI -- In a tunnel just behind the Reds' dugout at Great American Ball Park, there is a running track that consists of one straightaway that stretches about 50 yards. The sides of the narrow path have become a storage area of sorts, but there is enough room and distance for Billy Hamilton to get warmed up, just in case.
"From the sixth inning on, I'm up and on the track getting loose and getting my legs going, sprinting and stuff," said Hamilton, Cincinnati's top prospect and a first-time September callup.
Over the past 10 years since the stadium opened, lots of Reds players have used this area to get loose before entering a game as a substitute. It's unlikely any of them received a standing ovation when emerging as a pinch-runner for their big league debut.
On Sept. 3 in a crucial series vs. the Cardinals, fans stood and roared when Hamilton popped out to run for Ryan Ludwick in the seventh inning of a scoreless game. All in attendance were keenly aware that this was the guy who stole a professional record 155 bases at Class A and Double-A in 2012 and stole an International League-leading 75 bags for Triple-A Louisville this season.
The most anticipated stolen base of the Reds' season followed when Hamilton swiped second base on pitcher Seth Maness and All-Star catcher Yadier Molina. Right out of the blueprint envisioned before his promotion to the Majors, Hamilton easily scored on Todd Frazier's double, which gave Cincinnati a 1-0 win.
Hamilton stole another base against Molina the following night and scored. He stole two more vs. the Dodgers and also beat another big arm, the cannon of right fielder Yasiel Puig, to score the winning run in a 10th-inning walk-off victory on Saturday.
"It's a feature we haven't had since I've been here," manager Dusty Baker said of Hamilton's speed and baserunning skills. Baker has managed the Reds since 2008.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Hamilton is the first player in modern Major League history to record a stolen base in each of his first four attempts of his career. He's also the first player in the live-ball era to notch two steals and two runs scored in his first two games without recording a plate appearance.
"I'm comfortable with it now," said Hamilton, who played center field for the final three innings of a blowout loss to the Cubs on Tuesday and went 0-for-2. "It's only been a few days, but I knew coming in that this was how it was going to be. I've adjusted to it quickly. It's not bad. It's my role. I've got to fill it."
Will Hamilton's speed get to blaze on the bigger stage of the postseason? That seems likely, but not definite. Cincinnati is all but assured of being one of the two National League Wild Card entries and still has a shot at winning the NL Central.
Hamilton is eligible for the 25-man playoff roster despite not being called up before the Aug. 31 deadline. Major League rules allow players already in an organization before Sept. 1 to be added for the postseason to replace another player on the disabled list. In the Reds' scenario, Hamilton could replace reliever Nick Masset, who is on the 60-day DL and hasn't pitched all season.
"It could be a weapon, but we might need some bat, too," Baker said. "Pinch-hitting is very important during the playoffs. If you can have that luxury, that's great. He was brought here more to help us get there."
Hamilton, who turned 23 on Monday, made strides defensively in a year after converting from shortstop to center field. His ability to get on base has room for growth, however, as he batted .256 with a .308 on-base percentage in 123 games.
"I like speed, but if speed has trouble getting on base, then it's no good," Baker said. "Speed is great if somebody else gets on."
The extra outfielders on Cincinnati's 25-man playoff roster are sure to be Chris Heisey and Xavier Paul, as both bring hitting pop from the bench. Rookie Derrick Robinson brings speed similar to Hamilton's, but not the running skill. Robinson was caught stealing in five of his eight big league attempts this year.
Outcomes of playoff games can sometimes be changed by a steal, or a single run scored. Cubs manager Dale Sveum has seen it for himself. He was the third-base coach for the 2004 Red Sox when Dave Roberts' steal of second base gave Boston life while trailing in the American League Championship Series by a 3-0 margin. That was the spark needed for an improbable comeback.
"We won the World Series because of one stolen base in '04," Sveum said. "It's a huge asset to have when he's your 25th guy that can go in and pretty much guarantee to steal a base no matter who's on the mound and even if they pitch out. We traded for David Roberts for that one particular reason, and sure enough, it came down to helping us win the World Series."
So in that respect, Hamilton brings a lot to the table. With everyone on the field aware of his speed, he could disrupt a pitcher's concentration in a pressure moment. Hamilton could make a catcher rush a throw for an error. Or he can simply do what he did to St. Louis and Los Angeles -- steal second base and get into scoring position.
"He's a tremendous baserunner with great instincts that really knows how to upset a ballgame," Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said.
Hamilton doesn't know whether he will be one of Cincinnati's 25 in October, but he can already envision what it might be like.
"Oh, man. It would be something big," Hamilton said. "What I'm doing now is big. We're just trying to get there now. Once we get there, it would be even bigger."