Collisions are a fact of life for Shane Victorino. (AP)

Collisions are a fact of life for Shane Victorino. (AP)

by Alex Speier

Mon, 07/01/2013 – 7:48am

It is a name that is as pleasing as it is misleading. 

The idea of Shane Victorino as the Flyin’ Hawaiian is, of course, irresistible. Based on a half-season of evidence, it also appears wildly inaccurate. The moniker, after all, suggests a soaring gracefulness; it fails to capture the undercurrent of violence that permeates his game, the constant crashing that seems to leave both Victorino and the walls with which he interacts so frequently in regular danger. 

On Sunday, Victorino was the Red Sox’ star of the ninth inning, the player whose contributions were perhaps more important than that of any other member of his club in the game’s final inning. It was Victorino who chopped a grounder to catcher-turned-emergency-first baseman Josh Thole, leading to the game-ending error in the bottom of the ninth. 

More notably, one-half inning earlier, there was Victorino making a spectacular catch on a Jose Reyesdrop shot down the right-field line in the top of the ninth. Victorino’s straight-line run – nearly perfect in its efficiency, without a wasted step – concluded with a sliding catch across the foul line, his feet crashing into the low fence in front of the right-field grandstand. 

The play turned out to be huge, a leadoff out rather than a an extra-base hit for the dynamic Reyes. Considering that Jose Bautista launched a game-tying solo homer one batter later, the significance of Victorino’s play was clear. Yet the outfielder wasn’t about to get carried away in reveling in the glory of the play.

“I just see it as another catch,” said Victorino. “I want to make every out that I can possibly make, whether it be making a catch like that or making just a routine play. Every out is important from a defensive standpoint. I see it as just another catch. I know others might see it differently. I saw it as something, I had to go over there and catch the ball. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for me, I felt like.”

Indeed, and for Victorino, that’s kind of the point. After all, one needed to rewind just a week to conjure a similar play in which Victorino made a terrific catch of a Torii Hunter foul fly ball down the right-field line and crashed into the fence. 

In that instance, he had to leave the game as his lower back tightened. Indeed, core injuries have become a common thread of Victorino’s season because of an approach that verges on physical recklessness and has become a menace to his availability. The 31-year-old has played in 54 of the Sox’ 84 games thus far this season, with a seven-game stretch on the sidelines early in the year and a 17-game DL stint in late May and early June. 

The missed time was a direct byproduct of the relentlessness with which Victorino plays the game. Given his considerable value to the team – in addition to Gold Glove-caliber defense in right, he’s hitting .291/.341/.393 as an important table-setter at the top of the lineup – it’s worth asking whether he could ever ease up on the throttle to preserve his availability and longevity. Indeed, Victorino had that very conversation with manager John Farrell

“When I was coming back [from the DL], John asked, could I play at 80 percent or 90 percent? He wasn’t saying it as, this is what I want you to do. He was asking,” explained Victorino. “I said, ‘It’s hard as a player, a person like me, if I run at 80 percent, it’s not going to look right. If I ran at 80 percent or 90 percent, you can tell the difference between running 100 percent.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to look like that.’ 

"I’ve always been a guy who hates it when players play their whole careers playing this way, and then all of a sudden, as they get later in life, they start changing the way they run or they don’t play as hard – for me, I think that’s [expletive],” he added. “If I play at 80 percent or run at 80 percent or do anything at 80 percent, it’s just not going to look right.”

So, the objection is twofold. First, from a practical standpoint, the three-time Gold Glover suggests that a measured approach is simply impossible to implement. 

“It’s not that simple. It’s hard to say that, play smart,” said Victorino. “People bring it up and I shut it down right away. I’m going to play 100 percent or not at all.”

Yet even if he could “play smart,” and scale back his effort level, Victorino would not. He finds such a notion morally objectionable, antithetical to his beliefs about how to play the game right.  

Victorino suggests that he could not tolerate the idea of playing in anything other than all-out fashion. He cannot run at less than full speed, cannot measure his steps to avoid a collision with a wall, particularly if it compromises the likelihood of him making a catch, if he wants to sleep at night. 

“I just think it looks [terrible] if a guy plays his ass off and then, now, he runs at 75 or 80 percent,” he said. “Has it been discussed or talked about? Yeah. But it’s hard to actually go out there and say, ‘I’m going to hit a ground ball and run at 80 percent.’ It’s just not the nature of my character. I can’t say, ‘The ball’s going into the corner so I’m not going to run into this wall.’ No. [Forget] that. You’re going to go crashing into it because you want to make the catch.”

And so, the Red Sox have resigned themselves to the idea that there will be times when Victorino will be injured and unavailable. Ultimately, they cannot – and would not want to – ask Victorino to compromise the very playing style that made him an attractive fit in free agency.

“I can’t tell him not to play as hard as he does,” explained Farrell. “It’s the way he plays. His instincts and determination, his speed, allows him to cover a lot more ground and get to a number of balls that otherwise are going to fall in.

"One of the main reasons he’s been signed here is to cover that ground,” he added. “We’ve seen it a number of times. I can’t say that we’ve become accustomed to it or take it for granted, the range he has out there, but he’s made many many plays equivalent to [Sunday’s].”

And the team will almost certainly see several more such plays. Victorino is, after all, the Collidin’ Hawaiian, a man for whom highlight-reel catches – punctuated by crashes – are a fact of life. 

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