By Chris Emma-
CHICAGO (CBS) — Through the peaks and valleys of baseball’s 162-game grind, speed never slumps. And the fastest man in the game needed it more than ever during his early season struggles.
Billy Hamilton stood in at the plate against the Cardinals’ Michael Wacha, still hitless more than a week into his first full season. He pulled a 2-2 pitch to right field for what would have been a routine single for anyone else. Instead, Hamilton blew by first base and sprinted for a double.
“When you see him take second base on a ground ball to left field or right field, you’re in awe,” Reds teammate Todd Frazier said.
Those are the types of incredible feats Hamilton made a regularity in the minors. It’s something he expected to do each at-bat in the majors with Cincinnati.
Adversity caught up with Hamilton this April of his first full season. The most dangerous runner in all of baseball couldn’t get on base. He began to fear the worst.
“I didn’t want to get sent back down for not playing well,” Hamilton said Tuesday before the Reds lost 7-3 to the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
Hamilton sped through each level without stall, showing promise as one of the Reds’ top prospects. The lightning fast center fielder stole 155 bases in 123 games with Triple-A Louisville in 2013, shattering Vince Coleman’s record. Through it all, he was producing at the plate and wreaking havoc on the base paths.
Hamilton once scored on an inside-the-park home run in 14 seconds, the fastest time on record. In the majors, it’s something he aspired to do each at-bat, but the constant pressing turned into a lack of confidence.
The Reds stood behind Hamilton. His teammates were constant with support. Still, the speedster had to make an adjustment: slow down with his mental approach.
“(My teammates) were like, ‘You’re fine, you’re here, you’re staying here,’” Hamilton said. “They gave me that confidence.”
Slowly but surely, the results have come for Hamilton. He has an OPS of .708 entering Tuesday’s game, and his average is up to .276. The stolen base numbers picked up, too, with 31 tallied in 70 games — a number diminished by the early season slump.
The game isn’t too fast for Hamilton’s head, and his mindset is in the right place.
“He’s much more confident this month than the first couple months,” Reds manager Brian Price said. “The guy is really digging in and grinding it out.”
Added Hamilton: “I feel comfortable where I’m at now.”
Now, Billy Hamilton is doing what Billy Hamilton is famous for — the improbable, often unstoppable speed. He can stretch the most routine of singles into extra-base knocks. When he’s kept to first base, he can quickly steal his way to second.
Opposing pitchers must be wary of Hamilton in attempt to keep him off the bases. Fielders must prepare for his wheels. It’s catching everyone’s attention in the game.
A long-time umpire offered Frazier a comparison of Deion Sanders for Hamilton’s speed.
“I’ve never seen Deion hit a (routine) ball to right field and get a double out of it,” Frazier said. “Nothing against him, it’s just a sight to see.”
Hamilton’s speed is incomparable in baseball. He may go down as the fastest player ever. Frazier described it as “cheetah-like.” How would Hamilton detail it?
“I can’t explain it,” he replied.
Nobody else in baseball can, nor can they contain it once he’s unleashed.
Follow Chris on Twitter @CEmma670.