Detroit Tigers' Derek Hill has highlight-reel catch. Now he must show he can really hit
Finally, Derek Hill was playing in center field in Comerica Park.
This is what the Detroit Tigers envisioned when they took him in the first round of the 2014 draft.
This is the moment he has dreamed about for six years. “Pretty much every day, honestly,” Hill said.
Granted, it was only an intrasquad game, the Tigers’ first of summer camp. And it was being played in an empty stadium. That didn’t matter, not as Jeimer Candelario stood in the batter’s box and smashed a ball to deep center. The ball was headed over Hill’s head, soaring toward the right-center gap, out in no-man’s land, in this deep, cavernous park.
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Hill turned and started running toward the wall. He has always had great speed and instincts.
He was tracking it down but the ball started to drift back to center. He didn’t have time to flip around.
“So I just decided to just do it over my shoulder and just got lucky,” he said. “Or at least that's what we'll call it.”
He sprawled out and reached out his glove and curved his body like a dancer, showing amazing athleticism, and snagged the ball with his glove over his shoulder with his back to the plate.
Which would have been an incredible catch on its own.
But then, it went to a ridiculous level.
As he hit the ground, the ball popped out of his glove and he snagged it with his bare hand.
He rolled on to his knees and lifted the ball in the air in celebration.
Candelario went to third, thinking it was a triple.
“You are out,” Hill screamed.
But there were no umpires. Everybody was on their honor.
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“I got a catch for sure,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. “I saw it bounce but I think he snagged it. And we'll take it.”
No doubt. Somebody call ESPN. This was a "Top Ten" moment. For the Tigers, maybe for the entire year.
“Just barely got it before it hit the ground,” Hill said. “I think it was, honestly, one of my better catches. I mean, never really done the bare hand thing. So it's nice to add that to my repertoire.”
Did he catch it? Yes, I think. I didn’t see any video evidence that it hit the ground.
So that’s what I’m going with. Because this kid needs a break.
“It did have a little bit of symbolic purpose to me, obviously, finally up here, and hopefully I can go out there and show my talent,” he said.
That he did.
Maybe, you have forgotten about Hill.
Maybe, you have given up on him and moved on to the newer, fresher, younger prospects — Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson.
Maybe, Hill moved off your radar because he’s had such a hard time staying healthy and has hit just .243 in six minor league seasons.
But he reminded everybody on Wednesday that he is good enough — at least defensively — to play center field in Comerica Park right now.
“He's got great instincts out there,” Gardenhire said. “He can glide to the ball … He's a gifted athlete in the outfield for sure.”
The defense has never been in doubt.
The question has always been: Can he hit and stay healthy?
Hill had Tommy John surgery in 2016. The elbow injury cost him the end of the 2016 season and the majority of 2017.
But he hit 14 home runs last year for Double-A Erie and averaged .254 in the Arizona Fall League.
This year, he was invited to Tigers spring training and had a locker in the big league club for the first time. But he struggled, playing in seven games, getting 26 at-bats and hitting just .154.
The truth is, the game was moving too fast for him.
When baseball shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, the pause was actually a good thing for him.
“For me, it was kind of a blessing in disguise, honestly, because I got to go back home and kind of fine-tune and tweak things that I felt necessary to do,” he said. “I would say just slowing the game down, just a tick. Not that it was necessarily sped up for me but it was definitely a little bit of change in pace, compared obviously to Double-A where I was last year. So just kind of getting that rhythm and just timing up the game.”
It seems like Hill has been with the Tigers forever — and in some ways, he has.
But he is only 24. And I have to admit that I’m rooting for him. I have a soft spot in my heart for somebody who has overcome injuries and struggles and keeps fighting to make it with so much class, a guy who carried so much expectation and has fallen out of view, becoming the forgotten.
Maybe, this amazing moment can give him the spark that he needs.
Maybe, this can turn everything around for him.
Maybe, this will be the beginning.
Contact Jeff Seidel: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel/.