Jackson's grab in gem one for the ages
Highlight-reel snare not enough to ensure perfect game
DETROIT -- When Indians second baseman Mark Grudzielanek stepped up to the plate to lead off the ninth inning Wednesday, the crowd at Comerica Park was on its feet. Tigers starting pitcher Armando Galarraga had pitched a perfect game through eight innings, and the home crowd was rooting on its unlikely hero at the top of their lungs.
But the ovation didn't last long as Grudzielanek drilled a 91-mph fastball to deep left-center field to silence the crowd.
The ball was absolutely crushed, along with the crowd's spirit. But the crowd didn't stay that way for long.
Out of nowhere flew Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson. He got an immediate jump on the ball and covered a vast amount of real estate in center field en route to making a phenomenal over-the-shoulder basket catch at the warning track.
"The initial reaction was, 'Oh my goodness, this ball is going to drop,'" Jackson said. "I think it hung in the air a little longer than I expected it to, and I got to it."
After the highlight-reel catch, the crowd -- and the Tigers -- thought the first perfect game in franchise history just was meant to be. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case as a missed call at first base with two outs spoiled the perfect effort in Detroit's 3-0 win.
"It's destined to happen," Jackson said he thought after making the catch. "That's definitely what I was thinking. It's unfortunate that it went down how it did. [Galarraga pitched a great game anyway, but you don't really get a chance to be a part of that [often]. That hasn't happened too many times in baseball. When you're part of that, it's something special. It's unfortunate, but it was a great game."
Jackson was willing to do anything to make the catch and preserve the perfect game. He initially thought he was going to need to dive to make the play, but his speed allowed him to get under the ball and stay on his feet.
Galarraga said wasn't expecting Grudzielanek to swing at the first pitch of the inning. He thought Grudzielanek would make sure the right-hander's nerves hadn't got the best of him after sitting on the bench for a long eighth inning while the Tigers' offense put up two insurance runs.
Galarraga thought wrong, and his efforts were almost spoiled on a mistake he made. Instead, they were spoiled by first-base umpire Jim Joyce two batters later.
"That Jackson play was phenomenal," Galarraga said. "Coming into the eighth, I got out of the inning really quick. I was like, 'You've got this.' Then when Jackson made that play, I was like, 'Come on Armando, finish what you started.' For myself, I know I finished."
Grudzielanek had struck out in his previous at-bat -- only one of three strikeouts for Galarraga on the night -- and when he made contact with the ball, Grudzielanek was certain he had broken up the perfect game.
"It was a great catch," Grudzielanek admitted. "I didn't think he had a shot. I hit that as good as I could hit it. It was too high. He made an awesome catch."
From behind the plate, catcher Alex Avila thought everything was fine from the get-go. It came off the bat like a routine fly ball and Avila was surprised to see the ball carry all the way to the warning track.
"It was an unbelievable catch," Avila said. "When there is a game like this, a potential perfect game, there's always going to be tremendous plays, especially because [Galarraga] only struck out three guys. With all the balls in play, it's pretty unbelievable there were only a couple spectacular plays. ... [Jackson] was shading [Grudzielanek] to hit the other way and in. To run that far is unbelievable. That just shows you how great of a center fielder he is."
Outfielder Johnny Damon was on the bench after being substituted for Don Kelly to start the inning. Like many other Tigers in the dugout, Damon expected the worst. But, in the end, he really wasn't surprised to see Jackson make the spectacular catch.
"The kid is amazing," Damon said. "When the ball was hit, I think everybody on the bench just put their head down for a second. I followed the ball, but when he came up with it, we all just went crazy. That's the best catch all year, the circumstance and how far he had to go. Nobody can go and get the ball like Austin. He's to me, the best right now, and he's just a rookie."
When Jackson was asked how his snag compared to Willie Mays' catch in the 1954 World Series, he said: "I don't know about that. It was a good catch, but I'm not going to rank it that high."
It seems every perfect game or no-hitter has that one remarkable defensive play, and when Jackson came up with his sparkling catch, most on hand thought the perfect game was in the bag for Galarraga.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland said he was probably one of the few people who didn't feel that way. But he sure was disappointed that it didn't work out for his No. 5 starter, who was relegated to the bullpen last year and didn't even break Spring Training with the Tigers this season.
"Grudzielanek smoked a ball real good and it's a brilliant catch," Leyland said. "It's as good as it gets. Then an infield nubber ends up breaking up the perfect game. But that's just the game of baseball. That's probably why it's a great game."
Alex DiFilippo is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.