By David Brandt/The Associated Press
PEARL — Every muscle is twitching as Billy Hamilton inches farther from first base, a dead giveaway that some havoc is about to happen.
After a few futile pickoff attempts by the pitcher, Hamilton is off, stealing second base ahead of the errant throw that bounces into the outfield, which allows him to scamper into third base before another late throw. Two batters later, he scores on a groundout and the Pensacola Blue Wahoos have a 1-0 lead on a muggy Saturday night at Trustmark Park.
It is Hamilton’s 149th stolen base of the season — another notch in his already record-breaking season — and further proof he’s the most dangerous man on the basepaths in the minor leagues.
“The things he is doing this year are outrageous,” Pensacola manager Jim Riggleman said. “It’s really been a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Now the 21-year-old would like to test those wheels in the big leagues and swipe a few bags for the Cincinnati Reds during the playoff push. He’s certainly giving general manager Walt Jocketty plenty of reasons — 149 to be exact — to bring him up to the big leagues when rosters expand on Sept. 1.
“At this point, it’s something that’s under consideration,” Jocketty said on Friday. “We haven’t made a final decision.”
Hamilton was playing in some familiar territory on Saturday, just 60 miles northwest of his hometown of Taylorsville, Miss, where he was a football, basketball and baseball star during high school.
His mom, Polly, was sitting with about 75 others who were all wearing matching grey T-shirts with Hamilton’s name and number on the back. He received the biggest ovation of the night when he came to the plate — even though he was playing for the opposing team.
“It’s been so much fun being able to watch him this season,” Polly Hamilton said. “But I’ll be honest, the next time I see him, it would be nice if it was in Cincinnati.”
It could happen, but there are a few factors working against Hamilton: He was just recently promoted to Double-A and he’s not on the 40-man roster, meaning the NL Central-leading Reds would have to bump somebody to make room.
But Hamilton is so fast, it might not matter.
“I’m going back down next weekend to watch him play,” Jocketty said. “I’m going to talk to (Riggleman) and we’ll make a final determination at that point.”
Hamilton is certainly an intriguing prospect in both the short and long term, though there’s also little doubt a promotion would be premature in many ways. His speed would be among MLB’s best immediately, but his defense at shortstop has been inconsistent. His role with the Reds would likely be confined to pinch running and other spot duty.
But Cincinnati could use the speed. The Reds had just 72 stolen bases this season going into Sunday’s game, which ranked 14th out of 16 National League teams.
Not surprisingly, the wiry 6-foot, 170-pound Hamilton was all for a promotion.
“I can go up there and do a little damage for the playoff run,” Hamilton said with a grin.
And Riggleman, who’s seen his share of speedsters while managing in the majors, is quick to point out that while Hamilton is more than a pair of fast feet.
Hamilton is batting .320 this season — including .313 in 42 games since being promoted to Double-A. The switch-hitter also has 21 doubles, 14 triples, a pair of homers and walked 82 times in 124 games this season.
“Obviously, he’s still working on everything and he’s not a finished product,” Riggleman said. “That being said, he’s our best on-base percentage guy, he’s a pretty polished right-handed hitter and he’s a good RBI guy for us. He’s playing very advanced for a 21-year-old.”
Advanced enough for the rigors of a big league pennant chase? Riggleman’s getting him ready just in case, because Pensacola’s regular season ends Sept. 3.
Hamilton broke the single-season stolen base record for minor league teams affiliated with big league organizations last week when he swiped his 146th bag on Aug. 21. Now Riggleman and his star player are working on the finer points of baserunning.
Hamilton has been caught stealing 36 times and has been picked off on several occasions.
“It’s a good thing to have (the record) past us so we can get into some good discussions about situations,” Riggleman said. “Sometimes in the big leagues, even when you can steal a base, you don’t. It depends on the hitter, the score of the game, all that kind of stuff. If (Reds manager) Dusty Baker is giving you the hold sign, it’s not a lack of confidence. It might mean Joey Votto’s batting and he’s awfully good at getting guys home. Just be patient.”
Hamilton admits the stolen base record chase was all consuming, and it was good to get back to focusing on his complete game.
“I’ve got to work on my defense a little more and keep hitting,” Hamilton said. “My hitting’s come around a lot this year, but I’ve had a lot of errors I need to cut down on. I think I’ve made a big adjustment from last year, so I’m happy where I’m at right now. I’ve just got to continue to get better.”
But if he gets the call to the big leagues next week, that development will be put on hold. Cincinnati would only need him to pack those afterburners.
And Hamilton wouldn’t complain a bit.
“I’m a competitor,” Hamilton said. “So I’m ready to go at any time.”
AP Sports Writer Joe Kay in Cincinnati, Ohio, contributed to this story.
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