Even for those who watch Jorge Mateo play baseball every day, what the Orioles shortstop did was a sort of gaping-mouthed, husky voice that made his teammates shake their heads in surprise. In the ninth inning of a head-to-head game against the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday night, Mateo did what only he could do.
He attacked a slow chopper, grabbed the ball with his bare hands and rebounded it first, grabbing a diving Beau Bichette, one of the most aggressive runners in the league. By the time Mateo released the ball, his momentum had carried him past the pitcher’s mound.
For a player who expects himself to be great defensively, even he was amazed by what he just did – hitting the glove while his teammates were yelling or goggling or doing some of the above.
“Today was really impressive,” said Mateo after the 6-5 win.
His teammates and manager agree, and they will say it more flatteringly. What makes the 26-year-old shortstop so talented in this area is two-way. His speed allows him to hit the ball almost anywhere in the infield, and his hand allows him to finish the game. He has created so many great moments that they have become expected, and each one seems to surpass the last.
Mateo was second in the league with 11 runs saved on Tuesday, behind Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, according to Sports Info Solutions. Given the timing of Tuesday’s game – a one-run advantage against the top of Toronto’s rankings – Mateo can look forward to an increase in this statistic.
“It was a game changer,” manager Brandon Hyde said, thanking for a less stressful ninth inning. “Simply incredible bare-handed play with a fast runner.”
“He’s a terrific fielder,” said Ryan Mountcastle, the first-ball tackler. “I don’t know if he’s getting the recognition he deserves, but he’s amazing.”
“It’s a game-saving game,” said third baseman Tyler Nevin, a nearby player on the field who witnessed Mateo’s heroism.
Then left fielder Austin Hayes went even further.
“No one else in baseball could play like this,” Hayes said. “May be [Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop] Treya Turner is fast enough. May be. But no one is fast enough to get to that ball that fast.”
This left Hayes “shouting as loud as I could from the outfield”, and he was not alone. The fact is that Mateo is like this: he does not coach outstanding plays. Or, at least, when opportunities appear in games, everything else disappears except for his instincts and reactions.
His main emphasis during the warm-up is hitting the ball right at him. Every day before a game, he will kneel on the edge of the field and practice picking up players to his left and right when the coach hits them. It is these repetitions that are important. The rest will take care of itself.
“I want to make every game for my pitchers,” said Mateo, a former New York Yankees prospect who was stripped by the San Diego Padres last August. “Try to keep my pitchers out of every inning, don’t make them throw too many balls. Try to make every game. You’re not going to make every game, but you should try. Because you’re here for a reason. You have to try everything.”
Of the eight mistakes Mateo made this season, the vast majority came from what he considered to be routine play. This is the only blow to Mateo as a defender and he admits it.
There are times when the ball hits him directly and he can take it too carelessly. He cherishes difficult plays, starting long before throwing through the body. Thus, waiting, stepping and throwing can lead to an instant loss of concentration.
“When it’s a routine game, sometimes you relax, you know?” Mateo said. “The ball is flying straight towards you. That’s when the error comes. Just think, the routine is playing, you have to do it.”
But those outbursts don’t overshadow Mateo’s strengths as a buddy patrol, and he’s shown that throughout the season.
Against the Cleveland Guardians last week, Mateo caught a throw deep into the hole between third base and the shortstop, then threw it off-balance through his body. The ball bounced twice, but beat Oscar Gonzalez first. He made a center jump stop against Kansas City and a spin shot against Cleveland. Against St. Louis last month, he fielded a Grounder, ran a few steps to second and placed his money jump shot in one of his 40 double plays.
“The range factor is incredible,” Hyde said of Mateo, who shares with Turner the second-fastest sprint speed in majors this season at 30.3 fps, according to Statcast. “What I loved seeing this year that I didn’t really see at the end of last year or in spring training was how hard his arm throws from different angles. He not only can quickly and with a long range to get to the ball. But how quickly he can get rid of a baseball at different angles with arm strength is rare and impressive.”
On a Tuesday night, the Bishet bouncer typically plays the role of the third baseman he would face on the field. They are angled to first base and can cut the ball more easily. But when Nevin ran to his left, he saw that Mateo was attacking, and he did the smart thing – he left the ball to the young shortstop.
This resulted in what Mateo considers to be his best performance of the season, although he has plenty to choose from. And until the end of the journey, he will have many competitors, because he constantly surpasses himself.