With apologies to Vera Nazarian, “The only thing faster than the speed of thought is the speed of Billy Hamilton.”
The St. Louis Cardinals thought Billy Hamilton was going to steal second base. In fact, they were certain he would try the moment he emerged from the Cincinnati Reds dugout for his major-league debut — pinch-running for Ryan Ludwick. Ludwick singled to open the seventh inning with the game a scoreless struggle.
Even with Yadier Molina behind the plate, the Cardinals knew Hamilton was born to run and born to steal bases.
St. Louis relief pitcher Seth Maness threw to first base three times and twice came close to picking Hamilton off.
Then, on his first pitch to Todd Frazier, Hamilton broke for second. Molina, against whom nobody ever steals, knew of Hamilton’s reputation and rushed his throw. It was high and wide and Hamilton had his first major-league steal.
After missing two bunt attempts, Frazier then ripped a double to left field to score Hamilton.
And thus the Reds, a team with the second-fewest stolen bases in the National League, stole a 1-0 victory over the Cardinals on Tuesday night in Great American Ball Park, with only 20,219 witnesses — although 200,000 will one day claim they were in the park the day Hamilton stole his first base and saw him score his first run, a game-winner.
After the game, the actual base he stole was on the floor behind his clubhouse chair, a souvenir of his accomplishment and he said, “That goes to my mom (also named Billy). She has been a big part of my life, she is a special lady who has been behind me the whole time. She was here tonight and I was hoping I’d get to make my debut and steal a base while she was still here.”
Even before Ludwick got his hit, manager Dusty Baker pulled Hamilton aside and said, “If Ludwick gets a hit, you are going in and I need you to get to second base. So I said, ‘OK, I got you.’ Then I went to some of the guys and said, ‘I have to get to second base,’ and they said, ‘Don’t worry about it, just be yourself and play your game. It’s the same game, just bigger and better people.”
The Cardinals, of course, knew why Hamilton was out there, as did Molina.
“Everybody in the world knows what he has done in the minor leagues,” said Baker. “I didn’t send him out there to paint. It was no secret.”
And stealing on Molina? “That guy is tough, that guy is the best and he will throw you out,” said Baker. “He was close to throwing out Billy but his throw was a little high and wide, but that’s what happens when you have speed.”
Said Hamilton of his debut, “I ain’t been that nervous in a long time in my life. When I got on first base, I had chills running down. But I knew I couldn’t be afraid because this was a big situation and it was my job to get to second base.”
All that was left was for the bullpen to protect what starter Homer Bailey did for seven innings — no runs, two hits, one walk, eight strikeouts, 106 pitches.
Manny Parra pitched a scoreless eighth and it was Aroldis Chapman time, a closer who hadn’t had a sniff of work in 10 days. Would he be wild? Would he be too strong? No and no.
Baker had a notation next to Chapman’s name on his scorecard: NTP. That means, “Needs to pitch.”
And pitch he did. He re-introduced himself to the Cardinals and it was an introduction the Cardinals didn’t need.
Sent in to protect a 1-0 lead against the best of the Cardinals, Chapman struck out the side. He hit 103 miles an hour on the radar gun three times. But that wasn’t the impressive part.
The last three pitches he threw to Carlos Beltran were sliders: 90, 91 and 90. A strikeout on the 90. He went 100, 100, 103, 103 to strike out Matt Holliday. Then he threw Allen Craig three straight sliders at the end of his at-bat and struck him out.
Bailey gave up a game-opening single to Matt Carpenter and a walk, but was bailed out on an inning-ending double play. The Cardinals would get only one other baserunner and Bailey retired the final 14 he faced.
When he was told after seven that he was done, he angrily fired a water bottle against the clubhouse wall, but Baker said, “He didn’t want to come out, but he had a lot of pitches and he was headed for the 120s. He has a couple more games to pitch.”
Said Bailey, “I was sharp early as I was later and I told (catcher) Ryan Hanigan to stick with me and I’d sharpen up. And he stuck with what we talked about before the game. They said I was coming out (after the seventh) and I thought they were joking because we joke a lot.
“But it was the right move,” he said. “I threw a water bottle and could have handled it a little better but it was the right move, especially the way it worked out.”