Hunter makes no excuses in center
Twins Gold Glover at center of key play in seventh
MINNEAPOLIS -- Torii Hunter wanted to explain his seventh-inning defensive choice, ultimately leading to Mark Kotsay's game-winning, inside-the-the park home run, during Oakland's 5-2 victory over the Twins on Wednesday in Game 2 of the American League Division Series.
To the credit of the affable Twins center fielder, he stood in front of his locker and took on waves of postgame media, doing the best he could to intricately describe how the ball Kotsay lined just to the left of Hunter fell inches away from his all-out dive and rolled to the wall. But in the end, being an actual center fielder was the only way Hunter explained the nuts and bolts of the play truly could be understood.
"I can't even explain to you what happened on that play. You have to be out there to understand," Hunter said. "Do a survey of center fielders and see what happens."
Hunter's response should not be taken as dodging the question, and certainly was not given in anger. In fact, Hunter tried every way possible to describe what happened, before falling back on the center field angle in exasperation.
To the untrained eye, the situation began when Jason Kendall beat out a possible double-play grounder to shortstop Jason Bartlett and extended the inning one more out. Left-hander Dennys Reyes replaced right-hander Pat Neshek to face Kotsay, but fell behind at 3-1 in the count.
Kotsay roped the next pitch toward center, with Hunter apparently freezing for an instant on the low line drive. But the five-time Gold Glover broke quickly toward the ball and tried to make one of his patented highlight-reel grabs to end the inning. It was an important scoreless frame for the Twins to produce, with back-to-back home runs from Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau having tied the game in the bottom of the sixth.
Unfortunately, Hunter got an "A" for effort but nothing for results. During his 15-minute, intermittent media address, Hunter refused to blame anyone else or any other factor but himself for the end result.
There were no fingers pointed at the possibility of losing the ball in the Metrodome roof or at the Twins finishing 0-for-14 with runners in scoring position over the first two games. Hunter took this setback on his broad shoulders.
"All I have to say is I'll take the blame for this one," Hunter said. "I shouldn't have dove for the ball. I guess that shouldn't have happened, but I'm an aggressive outfielder. I'm a better outfielder than that, but I just made a mistake."
One of the more interesting points coming from Hunter's explanation is that he thought the catch would be made from the moment he took off from his post. When studying the replay of the particular miscue, Hunter and his teammates said Kotsay's drive clearly curved away from Hunter.
"Once I started running at it, I knew I had that ball," Hunter said. "I wouldn't dive unless I know I can get it. The ball cut on me and I tried to reach out and get it, but it cut so far away. ... I can almost bet you every center fielder in the game knows what happened right there. I knew I had it and boom, it cuts on me."
"You are surprised, but at the same time, there is only one person in this league that can make the catch, and it's Torii," Minnesota right fielder Michael Cuddyer added. "As players, and as an organization, we have gotten spoiled with how good he is. You come to expect those things. Although he's as close as you come, he's not Superman."
Cuddyer actually retrieved Kotsay's drive from the wall, a run from right field that Hunter said with an exasperated smile seemed like it took an hour. It was the second inside-the-park home run in Oakland's postseason history and the franchise's first since Oct. 4, 2002 -- exactly four years to the day.
That particular piece of history belonged to Ray Durham, who opened Game 3 of the ALDS with a line drive which skidded under the glove of the opposing center fielder's attempt at a shoestring catch. The venue? It was the Metrodome.
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And the center fielder at the time? Torii Hunter. Oakland went on to claim victory in that 2002 contest and took a 2-1 lead in the series, although it eventually lost in five games at home to Minnesota. As for Hunter's memory of that moment, it wasn't as vivid as Wednesday's play.
"Vaguely, a little," said Hunter, when asked if he recalled his involvement in Durham's inside-the-park home run.
Hunter's rare misread in center has left the Twins down but certainly not out in this opening-round playoff battle. The same could be said for Hunter. He was even able to joke about a past game with four strikeouts, a moment that was far worse than Wednesday, according to a smiling Hunter.
Eventually, Hunter gave up trying to explain the play in detail. It was hard to blame him, after explaining it 30 times previously. But if Hunter claims only another center fielder would fully understand, then why not ask Kotsay, who happens to be an outstanding outfield defender in his own right?
"I'm an aggressive outfielder," Kotsay said. "We like to go get, and I don't want to speak for Torii, but if I was put in that situation, and had a great break on it, and felt I had a chance or an opportunity, I would have gone after it. I think he would sit here and tell you the ball, whether it was knuckling -- I don't think it was knuckling, I think it caught a seam and got away from him -- I think he would have caught the ball, and they were out of the inning."
"You sit there and think about what could have happened for our team, and I feel like less than a man right now," Hunter added. "But that's just me. I try to get to everything I can, and I'm telling you, I had the ball."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.