For a few tense seconds, it appeared the Nationals’ early lead they built against Matt Harvey was evaporating. Trailing 5-1 in the fifth, the Mets had two runners on with two outs and Eric Campbell at the plate. Gio Gonzalez offered a 92 mph fastball and Campbell drilled it to deep right-center field.
“I thought it was at least off the wall, maybe top of the wall,” Gonzalez said.
Then Michael A. Taylor came into the picture. With the ball screaming through the air, Taylor turned on the afterburners and leaped to catch the ball with his momentum carrying him into the out-of-town scoreboard at Nationals Park. Inning over, two runs saved.
“As soon as (Campbell) hit the ball, I thought: ‘Oh, that’s a problem. Oh, my god,’” catcher Jose Lobaton said. “But, at the same time, you see the outfielder running to the ball, it’s like you’re expecting something. Michael’s a really good outfielder. And then when I saw that catch, I was like, we need that. We need those kind of plays to make us feel better in the game, make the team stay in the game. He did it, and I’m really happy for that.”
MLB.com’s Statcast showed Taylor traveled 97.172 feet at a top speed of 19.8 mph with a 98 percent route efficiency to make the dazzling play.
“He went a long way,” Nationals manager Matt Williams said. “That wall comes up quick. It was a perfect read, perfect angle and he was able to run it down. When he gets going after three or four steps, he’s really going. He covers a lot of ground out there.”
Amazingly, Statcast also revealed Taylor broke .05 seconds before Campbell connected with Gonzalez’s heater. It’s no surprise to Matt den Dekker, who has seen Taylor’s special instincts since the two played at the same high school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“That’s the kind of reads he gets,” den Dekker said. “You see him out there working BP and you see where the pitch is and you get that read of the bat and he made a heck of a play for us there.”
The Nationals selected Taylor in the sixth round of the First-Year Player Draft in 2009 out of the Westminster Academy. He began his career in the organization as an infielder, but quickly made the transition to the outfield in 2011.
The 24-year-old has been vital to the Nationals success, starting 32 games in left with Jayson Werth out and 31 in the center in place of Denard Span. He had some early adventures which resulted in some costly miscues in mid-April at Fenway Park, but since has played exceptional defense, routinely saving runs and extra bases.
“He’s been great,” Clint Robinson said. “He’s just so athletic. You see how he runs, he’s starting to cover so much ground. Like (Ian Desmond) said, he’s learning the ballpark. He’s been huge for us when Denard’s been out.”
Taylor has provided plenty of other highlight reel web gems this season, maybe none better, though, than his fully-extended, leaping grab to rob Tsuyoshi Wada and the Cubs of runs at Wrigley Field in the Nats’ 2-1 win on May 25.
“I think he’s starting to learn his role on the team,” Desmond said. “You’re kind of starting to see the future a little bit, realizing that he’s a big part of it and taking ownership of that.”
Taylor is still developing at the plate. He possesses outstanding bat speed and above-average power, but continues to struggle with breaking balls. He has come through with several clutch hits throughout the season, but after battling to raise his average to .250 to start July, Taylor has slipped into a slump. He’s just 9-for-51 (.176) with 20 strikeouts in 14 games this month.
If Taylor finds consistency in the batter’s box, the Nationals could have one of the most lethal packages in baseball.