Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Speed Kills

There's fast, and then there's fast.

Plenty of big-league baseball players can run, but only a few possess the sort of speed that can change a ballgame.

Put Darren Ford in that category. The young Giants outfielder became part of the team's 2010 "Torture" lore last September when he scored a game-winning run on a daring dash after a pitch hit the dirt.

And he's done it again, using his legs to swipe an extra-inning win in Pittsburgh. Ford was sent up to lay down a sacrifice bunt in the 10th inning. A terrific defensive play by Pirates first baseman Lyle Overbay nailed Nate Schierholtz at third, leaving Ford at first.

The Pirates must have known about Ford's blazing speed. Or maybe it was the enormous "I'm going to run and just try to stop me" lead he took off first. At any rate, Pirates pitcher Joel Hanrahan tried to pick him off a couple of times before throwing wildly.

And that's when the fun began. Ford, sprawled on his belly after a dive back to the bag, popped up and shifted into sprinter gear, racing to third base. If the Pirates didn't already know about his wheels, they had to have noticed on that play.

Giants batter Freddy Sanchez then hit a routine grounder to second. Standard operating procedure for a second baseman in that situation is to "look" the runner back to third, then throw to first. Pirates rookie Neil Walker glanced at Ford, then lobbed a toss to Overbay at first.

And that's when the fun really began. Ford blasted off for the plate, running on his own, startling Overbay (a very good first baseman) into a wild throw, and scoring the run that would win the game for the Giants. Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow could only gasp, "Oh, my word!"

Speed is valuable in baseball, but only insofar as it's used wisely. A's owner Charles O. Finley recognized the disruptive value of speed when he employed "designated runners" like Herb Washington and Allan Lewis ("The Panamanian Express"). Neither of those two was a real game-changer. But add smarts to speed and you get a lethal combination. Rickey Henderson. Willie Mays. Vince Coleman. Maury Wills. Davey Lopes. Guys who changed the game just because they might do something.

It's too soon to know if Darren Ford is one of those weapons. His seven minor league seasons show a mixed record: he has almost as many strikeouts as hits--but he's stolen 295 bases in 659 games, which works out to 72 steals per 162 games. He obviously possesses a sprinter's speed, but he also appears to have the cojones of a burglar.

That's a powerful combination.

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