The Raimel Tapia experience went to another level Saturday night.
The Isotopes’ leadoff hitter went 3-for-5 with three RBI at the plate, which is nothing to overlook, but it was what he did in center field that earned him a standing ovation from the Albuquerque fans during a 7-2 victory over the Fresno Grizzlies.
Tapia tracked down back-to-back deep drives to center field, scaling the Topes Slope and making a pair of extraordinary catches in the fifth inning.
He caught Chan Jong Moon’s flyball as he was starting to fall backwards just below the center field wall.
Nolan Fontana then hit a flyball to center that Tapia ran down, leaping high in the air to snag the ball for the second out of the inning.
How good were the catches? Good enough to be ranked as No. 2 in the top 10 plays on ESPN’s SportsCenter.
"I’m so happy that I was able to catch that ball. It was huge for us to win the game," Tapia said via teammate Simon Castro serving as his translator. "The second one, the wind was taking it, I had to step back and reach for it."
His manager said simply "no" when asked if he had ever seen a better catch in center at Isotopes Park.
"He was really, really good that he was able to do that," Glenallen Hill said. "He made a play in Oklahoma City, he was in left field, ranging to left-center, full-on sprint, caught the ball on one step (from the wall). That’s something he’s been working on, just the fact he feels so free but he’s able to concentrate when he’s so close to the fence is great."
Tapia said he has been practicing as much as possible on the hill before games to get used to it and become more aware of its tricky dimensions.
"During BP I practice," Tapia said. "When I was running today, I knew how high up I was. I thought 100 percent, no problem I could get it."
As for the hitting, Tapia remains cool and comfortable at the plate, using the entire field. His third single sliced down into shallow left field, just inside the foul line.
"I feel good," Tapia said. "I feel so comfortable, you can see that. It doesn’t matter if I have two strikes, I just trust my hands. If I have to, I’ll go the other way. Even if it’s two strikes and a half, I still feel comfortable. I’ll just use my hands."
Tapia was beaming after learning he made it on SportsCenter. Of course, it might have been hard for his teammates to notice as they were having an impromptu dance party in the clubhouse, complete with a smoke machine and flashing lights, with the music on full blast.
"Yes, as you can hear and see, they are enjoying playing good baseball, winning and everyone was contributing," Hill said with a smile. "They have the freedom to express themselves."
Not to be overshadowed completely by Tapia was another strong outing from starting pitcher Eddie Butler (7-2). He allowed just two runs on six hits and two walks while striking out four in seven innings of work.
"He is pitching at a very good tempo and rhythm," Hill said. "That last inning you could tell he was in control and he wanted to finish it. You could see that on the video, that he embraced the moment and the moment was not too big for him."
It marked Butler’s fourth consecutive quality start as he has allowed just six earned runs in his last 28 innings.
"Those of us in player development, that’s what we’re looking for," Hill said. "Sometimes it doesn’t come in positive results, but Eddie Butler has pitched like that for a while now."
All of this came after some dreadful travel delays for the Isotopes coming back from Oklahoma City.
"Sometimes the nature of this league you’ll have days like that," Hill said. "Today was one of those for us. We were supposed to be here at 11:30 but we got here at 5:15."
The Isotopes have won 12 of 14 and improved to 60-66 on the season. They remained 6.5 games back of El Paso (67-60) with 17 games left this season.
News from the rest of the farm:
No. 6 PuRP Ryan McMahon, 0-3, 2 K
Sam Howard, 6 IP, 0 R, 2 BB, 3 K
No. 13 PuRP Forrest Wall, 2-4
No. 12 Ryan Castellani, 8 IP, 8 H, 2 R, 2 BB, 4 K
No. 3 PuRP Brendan Rodgers, 2-5, HR, K
Garrett Hampson, 0-4, RBI
Willie Abreu, 2-4 2B
No. 5 PuRP Riley Pint, 3 IP, 3 H, 5 R (4 ER), 5 BB, 3 K
No. 24 PuRP Daniel Montano, 1-2, 3 BB
Triple-A Albuquerque: TBD
Double-A Hartford: Carlos Hernandez
High-A Modesto: Colin Welmon
Low-A Asheville: Peter Lambert
Short Season-A Boise: Antonio Santos
Rookie Grand Junction: Yohander Quintana