Inciarte’s sensational catch underscores his value to Braves

DENVER – A day later there was still talk at Coors Field about the running catch that Braves center fielder Ender Inciarte made a step in front of the center-field wall Thursday night.

“That was an unbelievable catch,” Braves interim manager Brian Snitker said. “He’s instinctual. Baseball’s gods waved that wand over his mother when he was in the womb, gave him that ability. You don’t just go out and practice that and do that.”

With two out and two runners on base in a then-scoreless game in the Rockies’ fourth inning, Ryan Raburn hit a 405-foot fly ball to center field that might’ve cleared the fence in some ballparks or hit off the wall in others. But Coors Field has a vast amount of acreage, and Inciarte tracks down fly balls as well as any Brave since Andruw Jones.

He read the ball off the bat perfectly, had a typically quick first step and raced back an estimated 85 feet to catch the ball on the warning track while in full stride, with just enough time to stop without crashing into the wall.

“Just a great jump,” Snitker said. “You’ve got to do everything right there. He gets such great jumps, a good feel. The instinct part of it, that not everybody has. Even the guys who can really run, there’s a lot more that goes into it. Just a lot of instinctual things that the guy does are really special.”

Inciarte missed much of April and early May with a strained hamstring and has had other minor ailments since, which could at least in part explain why his offense during his first season with the Braves has been well below what he did in two seasons with the Diamondbacks. He hit .241 with a .307 on-base percentage and .627 OPS in 66 games before Friday, after batting .292 with a .329 OBP and .716 OPS in his first two major league seasons with the Arizona.

Still, his combination of Gold Glove-caliber defense and astute base running have made a big impression on teammates and Braves officials, including general manager John Coppolella.

“We’ve been so pleased with what Ender brings every day — defense, makeup, all that — and I think we know he’s a much better offensive player than what he’s shown,” Coppolella said before Friday night’s game at Coors Field. “We’ve seen some signs of progress recently from him. Look, he’s been a really good player throughout his career and we’re very happy to have him.”

Snitker was asked if he thought Inciarte, regardless of his offense this season, was the type of player to build around.

“I do,” Snitker said. “You just don’t find those guys, the ones like that. I think offensively you’re going to see (eventually) what he did last year. Those guys with that kind of instinct, the tools he has, his arm’s a weapon — I think, to me, that’s a good piece to start with right there.”

Andrelton Simmons is the player that several observers have compared Inciarte with this season, in terms of “baseball IQ” and instincts.

“I remember thinking, when we had (shortstop) Alex Gonzalez, his hands are so quick, he’s not trying to do that; that’s just normal” said Snitker, a Braves third-base coach when Gonzalez was with the team. “And that’s stuff that Simba (Simmons) would do just normally. To be able to do that, those things that he did — that’s just normal for those guys.”

Inciarte is similar in that regard — doing things in the field, getting to balls consistently that others do rarely, deking veteran runners who should know better, and taking an extra base on an unsuspecting or lackadaisical defender.

Coppolella mentioned a memorable June 18 game in New York. In the eighth inning with the score tied, Inciarte hustled for a double, then sprinted to third base when Curtis Granderson casually threw a throw back to the infield after catching a line-out. Finally, Inciarte made a daring dash home when a wild pitch bounced about 10 feet away from the catcher, scoring what proved to be the winning run for the Braves as they overcame a three-run deficit to win 4-3.

“That was one of the coolest baserunning clinics I’ve ever seen,” Coppolella said.

To top off his performance that night at Citi Field, Inciarte made a perfect throw to the plate in the bottom of the ninth to prevent a would-be tying run.

“There’s tremendous value for a quality defender regardless of what he’s hitting,” Coppolella said, “and we know he’s a better hitter than what he’s showing. But he provides so much value defensively, and he’s also a great makeup player. We love what he brings to the clubhouse, the energy he brings to our team.”