'Football player playing baseball' Alford off to strong start returning from injury

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Outfielder Anthony Alford’s Pittsburgh audition came to crashing halt just five games after coming over to the Pirates when he ran into the center field wall at PNC Park trying to chase down a Tucker Barnhart home run. So what Alford thought was a good break – with the Pirates in need of an outfielder – turned into a bad break – a dislocated right elbow.

Alford was brought along slowly at the outset of spring training, still rehabbing from September surgery, but now three weeks in he is fully cleared, ready to compete, and off to an encouraging start.

After getting a pair of hits in Thursday’s 7-5 win over the Orioles, including his second Grapefruit League home run, Alford is hitting .417. He also received a nod from manager Derek Shelton for some heads-up base-running that led to a run after his fourth inning double.

But those were not Alford’s favorite plays. With no outs and a man on first base in the third inning, Baltimore’s Cedric Mullins launched a line drive to deep left-center slicing away from Alford who got a decent jump then laid out to make the catch near the warning track. He almost made a spectacular catch look routine.

“It’s funny,” Alford was saying after the game. “That was my first fly ball of spring and I was thinking to myself two days ago that I would really like to lay out for a ball and it just so happened today.”

The manager isn’t surprised. “The reckless abandon doesn’t surprise me,” Shelton said. “He’s a football player playing baseball. He’s a really good athlete.” Alford played safety at Mississippi for one season (with Steelers CB Mike Hilton) before concentrating on baseball.

The centerfield job is probably Alford’s to lose but he is getting competition from veteran Brian Goodwin and Dustin Fowler, who was in a similar situation in Oakland that Alford was in Toronto. Alford says the more competition the better.

“This group of outfielders we’re having a lot of fun and talking a lot of trash at each other, really just pushing us all to become better,” Alford explains. “It’s a very competitive group, not even just in games but with our early work, our individual defense work. (OF Coach Tarik) Brock makes it a fun atmosphere for us to get out there and compete.”

Alford says Brock is quite the ringleader. “He’s talking trash to us, just making fun and when you’re out there grinding in the sun before games the days can be very long but he’s down a good job keeping this group loose and just making everything fun and competitive. It just makes time go by faster.”

Alford says some of the drills are definitely unusual, but helpful. “One day we were jumping on tires and having to react to the ball and make every catch. Another day we had hats off/swim goggles trying to catch sun balls.  One day we had the machine shooting ground balls and we had 2 guys running in front of it, you had to react at the last minute.”

“They make those drills so hard that way when you get into a game things flow naturally and come easier,” he continues. “If you can get through those drills and master those drills then when you get out there for game time it’s going to seem a little easier.”

Shelton enjoys watching is outfielder go at it. “Any time you create competition and create competition that’s fun and you get some trash talking back and forth,” Shelton smiles, “I feel you get the best out of guys.”

So the competition continues and Alford is all in, except for one thing. Alford says he will not compete with is an outfield wall. “The wall is undefeated,” he chuckles.