LAKELAND, Fla. - The catcher who played the final two innings in left field Sunday afternoon didn’t look as out of place as you might expect. He ran fairly well, showed off a decent arm and made sure he didn’t drop any of the three fly balls that were hit to him in his unexpected stint.
Not that Jhonatan Solano had any experience playing left field before manager Davey Johnson looked down the bench, wondering who would be willing to take over for Micah Owings, who was dealing with a minor quad problem.
“It was my first time ever,” Solano grinned afterward. “I enjoyed it.”
When Johnson asked him if he could play left field, Solano jumped at the chance. He borrowed a glove from teammate Tyler Moore - “That’s why I catch (three) fly balls,” Solano joked - and trotted out some 325 feet away from where he usually crouches for a living.
“He asked me, ‘You play left?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ ” Solano recalled of the exchange with his manager.
Only one problem: Solano had never played the outfield. Ever. Not in the minors, not in Little League. Not as a kid in neighborhood pickup games.
“I see the opportunity to enjoy another position, so why not?” he said.
There’s an old adage that the baseball always seems to find a fielder just entering the game. It didn’t take long for the ball to find Solano, who made a catch on Tyler Collins’ fly for the second out of the eighth.
“The first fly ball, I said, “Oh my god, the ball’s going to me.’ And I catch it,” he said.
In the ninth, Solano was busy.
Leadoff man Matt Tuiasosopo looped a double into left field and Solano made up a lot of ground quickly, getting to the ball and uncorking a surprisingly strong throw to second just after Tuiasosopo had slid safely into second.
The next hitter, ex-Nats farmhand Jeff Kobernus, singled to left to score Tuiasosopo. Nick Castellanos and Hernan Perez then each hit fly balls that Solano surrounded and caught. His routes might not have been the most direct, but he got the job done.
“The first line drive in the second inning, I say, ‘Wow, it’s not too easy.’ I enjoyed so much playing left field,” he said.
While Solano may have thought he was pulling the wool over his manager’s eyes, Johnson got the last laugh. The manager figured he had nothing to lose in the latter stages of a marathon spring training game.
“If I can put (Atlanta Braves catcher) Brian McCann out there in the World Baseball (Classic), I can put Jhonatan Solano out there in a spring training game,” Johnson said.
Asked to provide a critique of his catcher-turned-outfielder, Johnson couldn’t resist having a little fun at Solano’s expense.
“Good little athlete. ... He got a few chances,” Johnson said with tongue planted firmly in cheek. “I noticed every time a ball went up, he looks at the center fielder.”