When the Orioles escaped with a 2-1 win over the White Sox on Thursday night, two defensive plays were the difference in the game.
One was a catch that was made and justifiably received a lot of attention. The other was a catch that should've been made and was virtually ignored.
The catch, of course, was Cal Ripken's sensational, diving grab of Lance Johnson's line drive that prevented the tying run from scoring. It resulted from a combination of good positioning and excellent reaction.
Three innings earlier, when the Orioles tied the score with their first run of the game, the White Sox didn't get the same results -- because of poor positioning and slow reaction. The beneficiary was Chris Hoiles, who hasn't gotten many breaks -- or hits -- so far this season, so maybe it was an indication his fortunes are changing.
Hoiles had three hits in the game without figuring directly in either of the Orioles' two runs. But his second hit, a double, sent Jeff Huson to third and made possible the first run, which scored on Curtis Goodwin's sacrifice fly.
Thus, one of the game's two key hits for the Orioles (Kevin Bass' pinch-hit, game-winning single being the other) was the result of a serious miscalculation by White Sox left fielder Tim Raines. The double by Hoiles was hit with authority -- but with barely enough distance to clear Raines' head.
Even though the ball hit well short of the warning track, Raines had almost no chance to make a catch that should have been nearly routine. The best rule of thumb for outfielders is that a ball hit over your head will beat you far more often than one that drops in front of you.
That is especially true with a hitter like Hoiles, whose power has to be respected even if his average is down. There's no way Hoiles should be able to hit a ball over an outfielder's head and have it fall safely as far from the fence as the one he hit Thursday night.
Had the ball been caught, as it should have been, the entire complexion, and strategy, of the game would have changed. When only three runs are scored in a game, the value of one is magnified.
There is a tendency among outfielders, especially those like Raines with exceptional speed, to play shallow in an effort to take away the cheap hits that barely clear the infield. It's a common mistake, one that has hurt the Orioles on a few occasions this year.
Catching one ball that otherwise would go over your head, such as the one Hoiles hit Thursday night, very often is more important than two or three singles that might drop in front of an outfielder.
There are times when it is imperative to guard against a single and concede the extra-base hit -- but those situations are generally reserved for the last inning when the score is tied. In the middle innings of a one-run game, two things should dictate outfield play -- take away the extra-base hit and keep the double play in order.
The White Sox did neither Thursday night, and paid the price.