Mark Reynolds, the Milwaukee Brewers first baseman, had driven the ball a long way with his looping swing, sending Ben Revere back to Citizens Bank Park's center-field fence in the seventh inning Tuesday. Ryan Braun treated the Phillies' pitching staff the way he treats urine collectors, slamming three home runs in the Brewers' 10-4 victory, but Reynolds' deep fly ball was as high and far as any of them, and only the fact that he hit it to straightaway center field, 401 feet from home plate, gave Revere any opportunity to chase it down.
And Revere did. He was a few steps in front of the fence, still backpedaling, when he lifted his gloved left hand to catch the ball . . . and didn't. The ball popped out of his mitt as he thumped against the fence, knocking his cap askew, resulting in a two-base error, allowing an unearned run to score.
"I took my eyes off the ball before I hit the fence, trying to see where it was," he said. "It definitely got into that jet stream a little bit, and it can do funny things in the sky."
To listen to Revere's description is to think this was an anomalous mistake. It was not. This kind of skittish defensive play has been typical of Revere since the Phillies acquired him before last season, and this isn't acceptable anymore, if it ever was.
In the third inning Tuesday, Revere misjudged a sickly little pop-up by Brewers second baseman Scooter Gennett, breaking backward before letting the ball fall in front of him for an RBI single. On Sunday, he misplayed a line drive by the Chicago Cubs' Ryan Sweeney, turning an easy out into a three-base error. Over the 227 games he had played in center field before Tuesday, according to the statistical and analytical website Baseball-Reference.com, Revere had cost his teams seven more runs than he'd saved. Watching him, you understand why.
Whenever Revere assesses and pursues a fly ball, he is often less reassuring than he is frenetic, almost twitchy. He dashes forward, sprints backward, shuffles to one side, shuffles back to the other, makes sharp breaks and tight curls in his routes. At 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, he resembles a kid playing freeze tag who is trying his hardest not to be touched. His arm has the strength and accuracy of a slingshot, and he's fortunate that he's as fast as he is because his speed allows him to make up for the trouble he has tracking the ball off the bat.
Go to YouTube.com, for instance, and you can still call up his acrobatic catch against the Cincinnati Reds last April, when he launched himself parallel to the ground, arrow-like, to snare Todd Frazier's shot toward the gap in right-center. It was a marvelous play, a staple of highlight sequences, and an inspiration for thousands of gaga catchphrases, tweets, and blog posts. But in the moment, on the Phillies' telecast on Comcast SportsNet, the first thing that former analyst Chris Wheeler said was this: "Looked like he misjudged it, too. Then he just outruns it at the end."
Wheeler's critique was truthful and insightful, and a year later, it speaks to a deeper problem that the Phillies now confront both with Revere and their entire roster. They are not the offensive powerhouse they used to be, and that decline demands that they play better defense. Manager Ryne Sandberg spent much of spring training putting his players through fielding drills to hone their fundamentals, and still Revere's error was just one of three the Phillies made Tuesday. The other two, by pitcher Kyle Kendrick and third baseman Cody Asche, also led to runs.
"Hopefully, this is a one-game thing," Sandberg said. "It's not a good way to have an opening day - that's for sure. It was sloppy. We'll continue to work. Ben has made some good defensive plays in the other six games we played."
Sorry, but Sandberg can't let Revere off the hook so easily here. Remember: Revere has 1,435 plate appearances in his major-league career and has never hit a home run - the longest such drought for any non-pitcher since 1947. Though he did have a single and a triple Tuesday, entering the game he had walked 34 times for every 162 games he'd played, and his career on-base percentage was a mediocre .324.
So if Revere can't provide the Phillies with any power, and if he won't get on base all that frequently, he has to play center field at an elite level to justify his place in the starting lineup. He has to master the tricky winds at Citizens Bank Park, and he has to accept that the pain in his ribs and the "boo-boo on [his] face" that he said he suffered Tuesday after running into the fence are the sorts of sacrifices he must make to do his job.
"No matter what," he said, "I'm going to keep crashing into that thing."
It's a popular sentiment around here, sure, but it's beside the point. Just catch the ball, Ben. That's all. Just catch the ball.