Isiah Kiner-Falefa wins over Yankees fans with an incredible defensive display

Aaron Judge is seen congratulating Yankees' central fielder Isiah Kiner-Falefa after his outstanding an defensive save against the Angels at Yankee Stadium on April 20, 2023.

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For most of the last season and weeks into the 2023 regular season, Isiah Kiner-Falefa faces the flak of Yankees fans for his erroneous defense and unproductive batting. But on Thursday, he won over them with a brilliant display of defensive feat twice that ultimately aided the Yankees to beat the Angels 9-3.

When Hunter Renfroe of the Angels hit the ball to center field, Isiah Kiner-Falefa got to it late, but he made a great flying stop to end the top of the fourth. His two diving plays in the Yankees’ 9–3 win over the Angels on Thursday were the first time he had ever done them, but they were very important to save his Yankees career.

The shortstop-turned-utility player played his first regular-season game in the outfield on April 2, when the Yankees beat the Giants 6-0 at Yankee Stadium. Isiah Kiner-Falefa started in the center field and handled three chances well during the game, and he is quickly getting used to the new role.

Thursday redemption with great defense

Isiah Kiner-Falefa has had a rough start to 2023, but he had his best game of the season on Thursday. The former shortstop ran in before leaving his feet to catch Hunter Renfroe’s falling ball to end the fourth inning.

Hunter Renfroe launched a long pop-up that sailed toward center field in the top of the fourth inning, prompting the first amazing catch. Kiner-Falefa began breaking back before sprinting forward and laying down to catch the third out of the inning.

The shortstop-turned-utilityman made not one, but two incredible diving catches in center field, garnering admiration from the fans at Yankee Stadium.

“I looked up and all I saw was the sun and as it was coming down, I kind of saw [the ball] and picked it up at the last second,” Kiner-Falefa said. “I made it break from it and the adjustment from the last play I made against Philly, [when] I missed it and dove the wrong way. … I feel like I cleaned it up a little bit and was able to make the adjustment and come up with it.”

His second catch was even better

But the five-star catch of the day happened in the fifth inning, after the Angels had scored their first run and remained a threat with men on first and third. This time, Taylor Ward hit a deep drive toward the wide grass in left-centerfield, but Isiah Kiner-Falefa had the speed to catch it with a flying stretch that didn’t leave an inch of space.

Taylor Ward hit a home run to center field with men on first and third. Isiah Kiner-Falefa made another athletic catch when he ran into the sun field and dove for a back-handed catch.

Even though Luis Rengifo scored from third base after the stop, Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s play kept the Angels from getting another run home. Yankees manager Aaron Boone said that he and the rest of the coaching team could already see the 28-year-old’s promise as an outfielder during spring training.

“We saw [natural instincts] and you know you have to see it translate in games but we were really encouraged by what we saw right away,” Boone said. “Today was tough sun out there. … That play on Ward … that was legit.”

He made an impact with bat

With his bat, Isiah Kiner-Falefa was also able to make a big difference. In the bottom of the seventh, with two outs and the bases full, Kiner-Falefa hit a two-run single, giving him his first RBIs of the season and giving the Yankees a bigger lead.

Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who is still hitting just .139 on the season, has had some rough stretches recently and has filled any job he can as he tries to stay on the big league squad. He even threw an inning in last week’s blowout loss to the Twins.

“It feels good,” Kiner-Falefa said. “Putting a lot of work in, making some adjustments, and just trying to help the team.”

It’s all about survival

Yankees' central fielder Isiah Kiner-Falefa making an defensive save against the Angels at Yankee Stadium on April 20, 2023.
AP

The day after Aaron Judge did something amazing in centerfield, Isiah Kiner-Falefa was more focused on staying alive. Both did their jobs well. Only in Kiner-Falefa’s case might the level of difficulty have been higher, given how shockingly inexperienced he was at the job. Thursday was his fourth time starting in the center, and all of them have been with the Yankees this month.

Isiah Kiner-Falefa was brought to the Bronx a year ago to be the team’s starting shortstop. It was until October that the failing shortstop let Oswald Peraza take over the job. He has already played four games in center field this season, which is second only to Judge.

He was pretty much out of the shortstop race during spring training, and when Harrison Bader got hurt, the Yankees started trying him out in the center. Even though Isiah Kiner-Falefa has only played in the outfield 10 times in his professional career, none of them are in the big leagues. At first, it seemed like the Yankees were just trying to find him something to do, but it turns out he was active enough to employ.

Boone recalled talking to outfield coach and former Mets manager Luis Rojas about Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s ability on the back fields in Tampa and getting good feedback right away. But it’s a long way from the Grapefruit League to the Bronx, and putting Kiner-Falefa in centerfield for a game that really counts is a big leap of faith.

The great defensive display by Isiah Kiner-Falefa make sure Aaron Hicks has no job on this team right now other than being a well-paid pinch runner, which is a waste of a roster spot no matter how much it costs. Hicks has been a center for 656 games over his 11-year career and is due more than $30 million through the 2025 season. Hicks has already been paid for, and once we saw Isiah Kiner-Falefa flying around the Yankee Stadium lawn on Thursday afternoon, his value hit rock bottom.

Yankees' Isiah Kiner-Falefa making a run against the Twins at Yankee Stadium on April 13, 2023.
AP

Isiah Kiner-Falefa may not have done well as a shortstop, but he is a very useful player who should be kept around. He even helped out with a two-run single with two outs in the seventh inning. This gave the team a little extra safety. This attitude of always being ready can be helpful, and Isiah Kiner-Falefa has shown great strength in getting over the loss of a year ago.

“I’m not off to the best start offensively,” said Kiner-Falefa, who is hitting .138 (4-for-29) in his limited role. “But it felt really good to make some plays out there and knowing all that preparation isn’t going to waste.”

His teammates like how hard he tries and how he acts.

“He’s willing to do anything to help this team win,” said Nestor Cortes, the beneficiary of Kiner-Falefa’s two highlight-reel catches. “I love the guy, how he plays, and he’s super-professional about everything he does. He comes in here and competes.”

Isiah Kiner-Falefa stole the show Thursday in the most unlikely way that anyone could have imagined this season.

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