COLUMBIA — When Rock Bridge left fielder Matt Priest lunged to his knees to snag a sinking line drive in the first inning of Thursday’s game against Kirksville, it looked like a run-saving, highlight-reel caliber catch.
But it was a sign of things to come.
In fact, the main difference throughout the Bruins' 7-3 victory was the defensive play of the Bruins outfield — Priest, Connor Brumfield and Joe Barbee — and its apparent refusal to let any baseball hit its way touch the ground.
“If there is a faster outfield in the state, I’d like to see it,” Rock Bridge coach Justin Towe said. “And if they are faster, then their feet aren’t touching the ground.”
While Kirksville suffered from a dropped fly ball in right field that resulted in two runs, Rock Bridge outfielders excelled with the leather and in the batter's box. Offensively, the trio smacked five hits and either scored or drove in six of the team's seven runs.
Even so, it was on the defensive end where the outfield stole the show. Priest, Brumfield and Barbee contributed to almost half the team's outs, often ranging well into the gaps and down the lines to track down well-struck balls and earning the admiration of their coach in the process.
“They can all flat out run,” he said, emphasizing the last word. “Barbee made how many plays in right field?”
He made six, including all three outs of the fifth inning. Barbee, who is also a slot receiver on the football team, had to range past the foul line for two of those plays. The final catch was especially impressive, with Barbee sprinting all the way to the fence down the right field line, at least 25 feet past the foul line, to reel in the pop fly.
“And we were playing him over in the gap,” Towe said. “We were putting him out of position, and he still made every play.”
Opinions on which of the three is the fastest vary, depending on who you ask. Their teammates say it’s between Barbee and Priest, though they say Brumfield is the best outfielder because of his ability to read fly balls and get jumps.
Barbee is closing in on the school's season steal record, and Priest says Barbee could beat him in a race. But Priest’s friends disagree. They call him “an ostrich,” which is the world's fastest bird.
“They fly,” second baseman Mike Nemec said. “It’s insane. It’s like a vacuum out there. Unless you hit it to the fence, you have no chance of getting it to fall in.”
Nemec is almost right. One Kirskville fly ball did fall in Thursday, a pop up to short center field off the bat of Wyatt Anderson in the top of the second.
But even then, the pressure put on the opponent by the Bruins’ speed worked to their advantage.
With Brumfield charging hard, the runner on first base couldn’t stray too far for fear that the speedy center fielder would catch up with the ball. The runner tried for second when Brumfield’s dive came up short, but to no avail. Brumfield picked up the ball, which had died on the grass in front of him, and forced the runner out at second.
From center field.