Great hands, cool heads

Tuesday, we began our four-day odyssey through the greatest defensive plays of all time -- at each position -- with first and third basemen. (Being sadistic types, we also chose the worst single play as well.) Today's installment focuses on the other half of the infield, second basemen and shortstops:

1. Jackie Robinson, 1951

Bobby Thomson's home run ... perhaps you've heard of it? But chances are you aren't aware how Thomson's Shot Heard 'Round the World never would have happened if not for Robinson, whose spectacular play three days before kept the Brooklyn Dodgers' season alive.

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On Sept. 30, the last day of the regular season, Robinson's Dodgers and the New York Giants were tied for first place and its automatic berth in the World Series. The Giants won that afternoon, meaning the Dodgers had to follow suit against the Phillies. Fittingly for this summer-long pennant race, the game went into extra innings.

In the top of the 12th, with the bases loaded with Phillies and two outs, Eddie Waitkus smoked a sure ground-ball hit just to the right of second base. Robinson flashed to his right and dove. Milton Gross' report in the New York Post: "Jackie got his hands on the ball and as he did he jammed his own elbows into his stomach and fell to the ground. The wind was knocked from his body, but Robby instinctively got rid of the ball in a shovel pass to Pee Wee Reese as he fell, not knowing how umpire Lon Warneke would call it." Warneke called a forceout at second, and the Dodgers were still alive.

Robinson barely was himself. Gross reported (perhaps hyperbolically, but what the heck) that in the dugout Brooklyn trainers had to put ammonia under Robinson's nose to bring him back to life.

The maneuver worked -- Robinson hit a solo homer in the 14th to win the game, 9-8. But Gross considered that defensive play Robinson's most stupefying moment: "This fielding gem," he wrote, "the unthinking reaction to get rid of the ball despite the pain within him, typified Jackie."

2. Billy Martin, 1952

It was Game 7 of the 1952 World Series. The Yankees were leading 4-2 in the seventh inning, but then the Dodgers loaded the bases with two outs. For some blessed Brooklyn moments, it looked like the Bums might finally -- finally! -- knock off the bullies from the Bronx.

Jackie Robinson again was in the middle of things, but this time he was the one who got robbed. On a 3-2 count, as runners broke from their bases, Robinson hit an infield pop up into the wind, above the area of first baseman Joe Collins. But Collins lost sight of the ball. He gave up on it, as did pitcher Bob Kuzava and third baseman Gil McDougald as the ball floated back toward their positions.

Martin noticed the confusion and streaked forward. On a full run he made one last lunge near the pitcher's mound and stuck his glove out about two feet above the grass. When the ball landed in it, the inning was over. The Yankees had preserved the lead -- and two innings later won their fourth straight World Series.

"(Martin's) catch," The Sporting News wrote, "served to seal the Dodger doom."

3. Chuck Knoblauch, 1991

Jack Morris wasn't the only hero for the Twins in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. His 10-inning masterpiece might have been short-circuited without a heady play by Knoblauch.

With the score tied 0-0 in the top of the eighth, Atlanta's Lonnie Smith led off with a single and was running with Morris' pitch when Terry Pendleton swung and connected. In view of Smith, Knoblauch acted as if he were about to turn a double play, and Smith appeared confused by this. He should have been -- the ball was actually screaming toward the wall in left-center.

Smith's hesitation at Knoblauch's fake cost the Braves a run. (He reached only third on Pendleton's double, and was ultimately stranded there thanks to a groundout and a double play.) Had Smith scored, the Braves probably would have won that game 1-0 and the World Series along with it.

HONORABLE MENTION: Dick Green's spectacular 1974 World Series, when he turned three double plays in the pivotal Game 3; Bill Wambsganss' unassisted triple play in the 1920 World Series; Roberto Alomar's mad dash to catch Lenny Dykstra's bloop behind first base in the 1993 World Series; and though it wasn't that hard of a play, Bobby Richardson's catch of Willie McCovey's line drive to end the '62 Series.

WORST PLAY: Chuck Knoblauch, 1998

Would you believe that one player could have one of the best and worst plays of all time at his position? After copious research, we do.

In Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, Knoblauch's Yankees were tied with the Indians in the 12th inning at Yankee Stadium. Cleveland's Enrique Wilson reached first with none out before Travis Fryman laid down a routine bunt. First baseman Tino Martinez fielded the ball, turned and threw to Knoblauch, who had swung over to cover first.

The throw hit Fryman in the back and caromed toward right field. Instead of going after the ball, Knoblauch instead complained to umpire Ted Hendry that Fryman had been running inside the baseline. As Knoblauch whined, Wilson scampered around the bases to score the go-ahead run. Moments later, Kenny Lofton added a two-run single, and the Indians won, 4-1.

Knoblauch's screw up inspired one of the great New York Post headlines of all time: "CHUCK BRAINLAUCH."

1. Ozzie Smith, 1978

No one who sees this play can believe it took place. Thank goodness videotape exists to convince us all.

Ozzie Smith was just 10 games into his major league career when he proved that shortstop standards would never be the same. He was a 23-year-old rookie on April 28, 1978 when the Braves' Jeff Burroughs hit a swerving but hard line drive off the end of his bat.

As Smith flashed to his left to go after the ball, it hit the infield dirt about five feet beyond the grass. The ball probably hit a pebble, because it caromed weirdly, to Smith's right as he was still moving in the other direction. With the ball clearly having a mind of its own, Smith threw his glove up to protect his face, planted his left foot, and all but blindly stuck out his right hand to make one desperate try for the ball.

Amazingly, Smith's five fingers grabbed it high above his right shoulder. He splashed to the ground and got a face full of dirt. Then he put his hands under himself, jumped up in one fluid motion, and threw Burroughs out at first.

Smith made dozens of amazing plays in his 17 seasons after that. But none ever topped that one, made before anyone knew who Ozzie Smith was. They did soon enough. "The thing that made that play," Smith later said, "was the element of surprise."

2. Derek Jeter, 2001

Aw heck, you know this one. Game 3 of the 2001 AL Division Series, Shane Spencer overthrew the cutoff man, Jeremy Giambi blithely chugged home, Derek Jeter out of nowhere grabbed the ball, shovel-passed to Jorge Posada, who tagged a stunned (and not sliding) Giambi.

No big deal -- the A's would get plenty of other chances to win a playoff series, right?

3. Walt Weiss, 1999

With the Braves and Astros tied at one win apiece in the 1999 National League Division Series, the pivotal Game 3 in Houston went into extra innings. When the Astros loaded the bases with none out in the 10th, it appeared the series would swing square in their direction.

But the Braves got the first out when Carl Everett bounced into a forceout at home plate. Next up was Tony Eusebio, who with the infield in hit a ground ball to the left of second base that looked like it would probably squirt through and end the game. Walt Weiss had other ideas.

Weiss, who had entered the game only innings before, dove to his left, caught the ball, and scrambled to his feet. He had only one choice, to fire the ball home and try to beat Ken Caminiti. The throw was on the money, and the forceout kept the Braves alive. Ricky Gutierrez then struck out to end the inning.

Weiss' Braves went on to win the game in 12 innings, and captured the series the next day. Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, who have survived Houston heartbreaks together since 1991, still rank Weiss' play as one of the most devastating moments of their careers.

HONORABLE MENTION: Countless plays by Omar Vizquel; Ozzie Smith, ca. 1986, running full speed into left field and, just as Curt Ford almost crashed into him, layed out in midair to catch a pop-up blindly over his left shoulder.

WORST PLAY: Johnny Pesky, 1946

Almost every baseball fan knows the pivotal play in Game 7 of the 1946 World Series to be Enos Slaughter's Mad Dash. But a select slice of the baseball public -- notably, Red Sox fans -- know it as Pesky's Hesitation.

The Red Sox were tied with the Cardinals 3-3 in the bottom of the eighth, with Slaughter on first for St. Louis. With two outs, Harry Walker lined a sure extra-base hit to left-center field. Leon Culberson gathered the ball and threw an oddly nonchalant throw to Pesky, the cutoff man, as Slaughter rounded third. Pesky appeared to hesitate, perhaps taking a peek at Slaughter, before heaving home.

Pesky has forever insisted that he never hesitated on the play, but many accounts say he did. Here's how Shirley Povich described it in the Washington Post:

"Culberson's throw to Pesky was an unforgivably lazy lob, and perhaps it was that throw which lulled Pesky into a false sense of sureness that Slaughter would hold up at third base. Anyway, Pesky made no great haste in throwing the ball toward either third base or the plate."

Slaughter slid in safely ahead of Pesky's throw, which was slightly up the third-base line. The Cardinals won the game 4-3 and the Series. In case you haven't heard, the Red Sox haven't won a World Series ever since.

Alan Schwarz is the Senior Writer of Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His first book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," will be published by St. Martin's Press in July.