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Crash course of great plays

We're in day three of our four-day tour of the best defensive plays of all time at each position. Click on these links to revisit first and third basemen and second basemen and shortstops. We go three deep for each spot on the diamond, and just for fun also cite the worst play of all time, too.

Now we turn to the most difficult group of all, pitchers and catchers:

CATCHER
1. Buck Martinez, 1985

"Break a leg," people would tell Buck Martinez before he went out to catch for the Blue Jays. Fair enough. But when he actually did break his leg, did he have to continue making both outs a double play?

On July 9, 1985, Martinez was behind the plate in the third inning of a 9-4 game against the Mariners. When Gorman Thomas singled to right field, Phil Bradley tried to score from second. Jesse Barfield's throw beat him to the plate, so Bradley -- a former option quarterback for the University of Missouri -- pretended Martinez was a cornerback and bowled over him. Martinez held onto the ball, retiring Bradley, but found himself on the ground with a broken right fibula and dislocated ankle.

And the play still wasn't over. Thomas, seeing Martinez incapacitated, ran to third base. Martinez was so dazed, while lying on his back in the dirt, that rather than call time he heaved the ball toward third. His wild throw sailed into left field, so Thomas started toward home -- while Martinez remained on the ground.

Left fielder George Bell grabbed the ball and threw it home, where Martinez was, naturally, still lying on his back. But the catcher still caught the ball on a short hop and tagged a stunned -- and just as out -- Thomas. Only then did a stretcher come to retrieve Martinez' broken body.

"I had that same play happen to me in my first start in 1969," Martinez later recalled. "Bob Allison of Minnesota ran over me at home, but I got up and threw to third. Then I passed out."

2. Paul Lo Duca, 2002

It really was a routine, foul popup. But the Dodgers' Paul Lo Duca turned it into one of the most amazing plays a catcher has ever made.

On Sept. 17, 2002, in the seventh inning of a one-run game against the arch rival Giants, Damon Minor sent a pitch high into the air into third-base foul territory. Lo Duca whipped off his mask and took off at full speed after the ball. After a few seconds it became clear to everyone -- including Lo Duca himself -- that he was about to have a very painful experience with the four steps down into the Dodger dugout.

So like many players, Lo Duca slid to protect himself. Like some but not all players, he kept his eye on the ball well enough during this maneuver that he actually caught the ball. But unlike anyone who had ever accomplished these two, Lo Duca was moving so fast that he hydroplaned across the rubber warning surface and into the dugout at virtually full speed -- and still landed on his feet, jumping out of the dugout all in one incredible, seamless motion.

"That's from my pop-and-lock days, when I used to breakdance on a cardboard box in the mall," Lo Duca told the Los Angeles Times. "I was lucky because I slid. It was almost like being at Wet 'N Wild."

3. Carlton Fisk, 1985

OK, so he didn't break his leg on the play. But in a tie game against the Yankees on Aug. 2, 1985, Carlton Fisk tagged out two runners in less than one second.

New York was rallying with none out, placing Bobby Meacham on second and Dale Berra on first. Rickey Henderson singled to left-center. Luis Salazar relayed the ball to shortstop Ozzie Guillen, who whipped it to Fisk behind the plate.

By then the weirdness was in full swing. Meacham had hesitated at the crack of the bat and then slipped when taking his first steps toward third. When he got up to speed, Berra was chugging along just five feet behind him.

Third-base coach Gene Michael signaled for Meacham to run home, but before he knew what was happening, Berra had rounded third as well. (Videotape shows Michael throwing up his hands in disbelief.) Fisk took Guillen's throw and got into a crouch, having to figure out how to tag two runners at once.

Fisk sweep-tagged Meacham as he dove toward the plate. Then, a split-second later, Fisk reached to his left to tag Berra, who compounded his screw up by not sliding. The score stayed at 3-3, and the Yankees wound up losing in 11 innings.

"I could see the play develop," Fisk said afterward. "I could see Meacham and Berra matching stride for stride, but I anticipated more of a crush at the plate. I'm just fortunate I didn't stand in Meacham's way. If I had, Berra probably would've just walked right over me."

HONORABLE MENTION: Ivan Rodriguez blocking the plate on the final play of last year's NLDS against the Giants; Bob O'Farrell nails Babe Ruth trying to steal second base to end the 1926 World Series.

WORST PLAY: Mickey Owen

As a catcher, your job is pretty clear -- catch the ball. If Mickey Owen had done that in Game 4 of the 1941 World Series, his Dodgers might have won the title.

With two out in the top of the ninth, with Brooklyn holding a 4-3 lead, Tommy Henrich appeared to strike out to end the game. But Hugh Casey's curveball scooted past Owen, letting Henrich reach first and keeping the Yankees alive.

"I was late getting my glove down there and it went right by me," Owen later said. "My fault."

Fate would be cruel to Owen. The Yankees wound up scoring four runs in the inning to win the game and take a 3-1 Series lead. They won the championship the next day.

PITCHER
1. Bob Gibson, 1964

The Cardinals and Yankees were tied with two wins apiece in the 1964 World Series. In the pivotal Game 5, St. Louis ace Bob Gibson was blazing along with a 2-0 shutout before the Yankees started threatening in the bottom of the ninth.

With one out and Mickey Mantle on first, Joe Pepitone smashed a ground ball square off Gibson's leg. ("On the spot my mother used to whip," Gibson later recalled.) Gibson's wild follow-through always left him spinning toward first base; as the ball bounded away from him toward the third-base line, Gibson reversed momentum, scrambled all the way back to the other foul line, grabbed the ball and heaved it all but blindly to Bill White at first. The throw somehow beat Pepitone.

It was an amazing -- and vital -- play. The next batter, Tom Tresh, hit a home run that tied the game rather than winning it, 3-2. The Cardinals won in the 10th, and went on to win the championship three days later.

Bob Broeg of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who had been on hand for Willie Mays' famous catch in the 1954 World Series, called Gibson's play the best he'd ever seen in a Fall Classic. Tim McCarver, whose home run won the game, has described it thusly: "It's asserted of [Larry] Bird that when he played, he was a level above everyone else, that all of the other players were in slow motion -- because of his intensity, his concentration. That's what happened on that play with Gibson."

2. Jack Lazorko, 1987

Lazorko was a pitcher, a major league one, at various times from 1984-88. But in his heart he was always a hockey goalie.

The former youth goaltender from River Edge, N.J., defended his position on the mound as if he were wearing a mask and pads. He loved glovework so much, he forsook the protective screen when he pitched batting practice for the Angels. All that paid off one night in July 1987 against the Brewers.

Time after time -- five in all -- Lazorko turned hot shots up the middle into outs. He sprawled on his considerable belly to grab a grounder by Dale Sveum. Two more dives robbed Mike Felder and Cecil Cooper. When Greg Brock smacked one ball over the mound, Lazorko did the splits and snared it in his glove. He did that again against Ernest Riles.

How in the zone was Lazorko? His manager Gene Mauch, grinned, "He wasn't gonna let that red light over the net go on." The Angels won the game 4-3 in 12 innings in large part thanks to Lazorko's saves. As reporters surrounded him in the clubhouse afterward, a teammate interrupted. "Hey Jack," he said. "A scout from the L.A. Kings is here to see you."

3. Mike Stanton, 1982

Coming up with a third play for pitchers was the hardest part of this project. But for sheer visual value, this one's pretty darned good.

On June 20, 1982, as the Royals' Jerry Martin took his lead off first base, Mariners reliever Mike Stanton was pitching to Frank White. White lined a shot up right up the middle. Not a floating liner off the end of the bat. Nothing with any arc to it. A laser traveling at least 90 to 100 mph.

Stanton stuck out his bare hand and snatched the ball straight out of the air.

And calmly threw to first for the double play.

Siddown, Frank.

HONORABLE MENTION: Two plays that I could not confirm, but some recall. One had Rick Camp of the Braves ricocheting a ground ball off his foot and high into the air, and taking several hops on the other foot to catch it. The other was Grant Jackson of the Yankees fielding a hopper behind his back in the 1976 World Series.

WORST PLAY: Mariano Rivera, 2001

When the Yankees sent out Mariano Rivera (the best postseason reliever of all time) to close out the Diamondbacks in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, he seemed like a lock to preserve the Yankees' 2-1 lead and deliver their fourth straight championship. But Rivera failed -- not just as a reliever, but as a fielder, too.

Mark Grace opened with a single and was removed for pinch-runner David Dellucci. Then Damian Miller bunted the ball back to Rivera. Rather than go to first, Rivera decided to try to get Dellucci at second. But his throw was wild, leaving the Diamondbacks with runners on first and second with none out rather than just first with one.

Jay Bell next bunted in front of the mound, with Rivera getting the lead runner at third. But after a double by Tony Womack, a hit-by-pitch to Craig Counsell and a single by Luis Gonzalez, the Diamondbacks had snatched away the title. Rivera admitted afterward that the whole inning probably would have been different had he only completed that first play at second.

"That's baseball," he said afterward. "There's nothing I can do about it."

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.