Best ever

OMAHA, Neb. — With a slide and a basket catch over his right shoulder, Florida center fielder Matt den Dekker may have sealed his place in College World Series history.

In the opinion of some long-time CWS observers, den Dekker made the greatest catch in the event’s 64-year history.

In the opinion of others, den Dekker’s catch may have been the greatest catch in baseball history, period. Better than even Willie Mays’ over-the-shoulder catch against Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series at the Polo Grounds, and that’s saying a lot.

“That’s one of the best catches I’ve ever seen,” said Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan, who has been witness to many of den Dekker’s works of fielding art the last three seasons.

The catch came on the first fielding play of the fourth inning. The Gators were trailing 4-2 and sophomore left-handed starter Alex Panteliodis was struggling, leaving the ball up in the strike zone and the Bruins were pouncing. UCLA right fielder Brett Krill drilled Panteliodis’ fastball to deep center field. While Florida partisans on hand feared the worst, thinking the ball, if not a home run, was going to go for extra bases, den Dekker had other ideas. He dropped his head and started running.

The Florida senior, who was drafted by the New York Mets in the fifth round of the recent Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, used a drop step over his left shoulder and started to run without looking up. The ball was crushed, so any extra looks over his right shoulder for the ball would be wasting steps. Steps from the warning track, den Dekker did look to catch his bearings.

Instead of heading to the right-center field gap, the ball began to head more towards straight away center field. So den Dekker changed the angle of the head and ran full speed toward the wall, bending his head straight backwards to read the ball. Reaching the warning track and closing in on the wall quickly, den Dekker decided to slide on his knees, creating a perfect basket with his glove and bare hand on his chest.

And the ball fell in for out No. 1.

“That’s what I’m out there to do,” den Dekker said simply.

Singing his own praises is not something den Dekker does. So we’ll let others do that for him.

KOZN 1620 radio play-by-play man Kevin Kugler has been calling games in the College World Series for seven years. The six-time Nebraska Sportscaster of the Year has also been watching games at Rosenblatt Stadium for over 20 years. So he qualifies as somewhat of an expert on great defensive plays in Omaha, and Kugler will tell you he’s never seen anything like den Dekker’s catch.

“It’s the best catch I’ve ever seen in person,” Kugler said. “Major League Baseball, college baseball … best catch I’ve ever seen. I didn’t think he was going to get the ball, first off. Not only did he get the ball, he slides down and makes the catch. I still can’t believe it.”

In doing his research on the Gators, Kugler knew of den Dekker’s reputation as the best defensive center fielder in college baseball and the three times he has been named to the SEC All-Defensive team. But when Krill hit the ball, even Kugler was getting ready to say “it’s over his head and off the wall for a double” when den Dekker pulled off his magic.

“No amount of preparation can tell you about that kind of play,” Kugler said. “I knew he was a great defensive center fielder with great range. I knew he could cover a lot of ground. I didn’t know he had the ability to cover that kind of ground.”

A few booths to the left, ESPN’s Mike Patrick was in similar disbelief. He claims it as the third best catch he has ever seen, live or on television. The two catches Patrick ranks ahead of den Dekker’s both were made by Jim Edmonds, similar plays where he dove for a ball that was straight behind him. But den Dekker’s catch is third.

“The Willie Mays catch would be fourth for me,” Patrick said.

Patrick claims he learned a long time ago not to assume a ball will drop over a center fielder’s head. Instead, he waited it out to see what would happen to the ball, but he never expected den Dekker to slide under it.

“It was dead over his head, and then he has to deal with the bill of his cap,” Patrick said. “You couldn’t have thought of anything else that would have made it a more difficult catch except for maybe a seagull hitting him in the head.”

In the middle of America’s heartland, of course, seagulls are not to be found. But if one did find its way to Omaha, Matt den Dekker likely would catch it.

CAN’T GET ENOUGH OF MATT’S MAGIC? Click below to see den Dekker’s catch against UCLA: