COLUMBIA — Hickman senior A.J. Grathwohl takes a step in and then sprints backwards, the line drive looks like it is going to land several feet behind him.
Grathwohl dives, arm fully-extended, to make the catch. He raises his glove as soon as the ball is firmly in his glove. The umpire makes a fist with his right hand and Grathwohl throws the ball to the infield.
Fort Zumwalt West third baseman Danny Frohock is well on his way to second base when he stops, puts his hands on his head and runs back into the dugout.
This was not the first time Grathwohl has stolen a hit from an opposing team.
“I thought there was no way he was going to catch it,” senior pitcher Stephen Peel said. “I thought the ball was going to go into the gap with the way the wind was pushing it.”
Despite Grathwohl’s catch, No. 2 Fort Zumwalt West (11-1) beat Hickman 11-9 Thursday at Hickman.
Grathwohl’s consistent play in center field is more than just a highlight waiting to happen, it changes the Kewpies’ game entirely. His defense sets the tone for the team.
“It always starts with his defense,” Hickman coach Dave Wilson said. “He’s the kind of guy that likes to get dirty to help his team.”
Wilson said it is a lot easier to pitch when you have a player of Grathwohl’s caliber to count on.
“You just get confidence to throw it over the plate and somebody will make a play for you,” Wilson said.
Peel said knowing that Grathwohl is out in center field allows him to take more risks and become more comfortable on the mound.
“I know that I can throw a fastball and not be afraid to go after the hitter,” Peel said. “Even if they hit the ball hard and into the gap, I know he is there.”
Grathwohl said he relishes making a diving catch for his team because he knows it is counting on him. Grathwohl said the key to making a diving catch is getting a good read on the ball when it comes off the bat. On Thursday, with the winds blowing at 20 mph, getting a read was even more difficult.
“I just like laying out because it’s fun and it is what I do,” said Grathwohl, a large grass stain decorating his white pants. “Once you make one big play you want to keep doing it and it eventually becomes a habit.”
Being scared is something Grathwohl does not think about. He has made enough diving catches to know not to concentrate about diving and just go for it.
Besides starring in the field on Thursday, Grathwohl led the Kewpies (9-4) at the plate going 4-for-4 with three RBIs. He was a home run shy of the cycle.
“I’m primarily a defensive player and once I get my shot I have got to put the ball in play and see what happens from there,” Grathwohl said.