Even for those who watched Jorge Mateo play baseball every day, what the Orioles shortstop did was a mouth-watering, voiceless web gem that made his teammates nod their heads in wonder. Matteo did what he could in the ninth inning of a one-run game against the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday night.
He charged a slow chopper, grabbed the ball with a bare hand and swung it to the shore first, catching a diving bow bichette, one of the most aggressive base runners in the league. By the time Mateo released the ball, his momentum brought him near the pitcher’s mound.
For a player who expects himself to have great defensive plays, even he was impressed by what he did – kicking his glove as his teammates screamed or gaped or both. some combination of
“Today was a really impressive day,” Matteo said after the 6-5 win.
His partner and manager agree, and they will say it more flatteringly. What makes the 26-year-old shortstop so talented on the field is a two-pronged one. His speed allows him to get the balls hit almost anywhere in the field, and his hand allows him to finish the game. He has created moments so extraordinary that they have become expected, each one of the last.
According to SportsInfo Solutions, Matteo was second in the league with 11 defensive runs entering Tuesday, behind Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman K’Brien Hayes. Given the moment in Tuesday’s game – a one-run lead against Toronto’s top-order – Matteo could be in line for a bump in that stat.
“That was game-changing,” said manager Brandon Hyde, grateful for a less stressful ninth inning. “Just an unbelievably bare hand play with a fast runner.”
“He’s an amazing fielder,” said Ryan Mountcastle, first baseman at the end of the throw. “I don’t know if he gets the credit he deserves, but he’s amazing.”
“Those are game-saving plays,” said third baseman Tyler Nevin, the closest player on the field to witness Matteo’s heroism.
Then left fielder Austin Hedges went a step further.
“Nobody else could make that game in baseball,” Hayes said. “Perhaps [Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop] Tree turner is quite fast. Perhaps. But no one is fast enough to get on that ball so quickly.”
It made Hayes “shout as loud as from the outfield,” and he wasn’t alone. The thing about Mateo is this: he doesn’t practice extravagant plays. Or at least, when opportunities come in sports, everything but his instincts and reactions disappears.
His main focus during the warm-up is hitting the balls at him. Each day before the game, he would stand on the edge of the field with both knees bent and practice picking a grounder to his left and right when hit by a coach. It is those repetitions that are important. The rest will take care of itself.
“I want to make every play for my pitcher,” said Matteo, a former top prospect with the New York Yankees who was claimed exemption from the San Diego Padres last August. “Try to get my pitcher out of every innings, don’t bowl too many balls to him. Try to make every play. You’re not going to make every play, but you have to try. Because you are there for a reason. You have to try everything.”
Most of the eight mistakes Mateo has made this season have come down to what he would consider regular plays. This is the only knock on Mateo as defender, and he recognizes it.
Sometimes it happens that the ball hits right above him that he can take it very carelessly. He cherishes the tough plays, until he fires a throw at his body. So waiting and stepping and throwing can lead to a momentary loss of focus.
“When it’s a regular game, sometimes you just take it easy, you know?” Mateo said. “The ball is coming at you. That’s when the error comes. Just put your mind, the routine goes on, you have to do it.”
But those blips don’t overshadow the power of Mateo patrolling the shortstop, and he’s shown it throughout the season.
Against the Cleveland Guardians last week, Matteo trapped a one-hopper in the hole between third base and shortstop, then fired an off-balance throw across his body. The ball bounced twice but first defeated Oscar Gonzalez. He made a diving stop in the middle against Kansas City, a spinning throw against Cleveland. Louis last month, he fielded a grounder, jumped several steps to second and jumped on the money for one of his 40 double plays.
According to Statcast, “the range factor is incredible,” Hyde said of Mateo, who tied with Turner for the second-fastest sprint speed among the majors this season at 30.3 feet per second. “What I noticed this year, what I didn’t really see at the end of last year or in spring training, is how strong his arm is from different arm angles. He’s not only fast and with great range of the ball. But how fast he gets rid of a baseball from different angles with arm strength is rare and impressive.”
On Tuesday night, as Bichette’s bouncer becomes a play, a third baseman hits the ground. They have an angle towards first base and can cut the ball more easily. But when Nevin went to his left, he saw Matteo charging and did the clever thing – he dropped the ball for the young shortstop.
This earned Matteo his best game of the season, although he has plenty of options to choose from. And the rest of the way he will have a lot of competition as he constantly gets ahead of himself.