By John Bohnenkamp
Lincoln Riley knows he’s struggling with his hitting right now.
But there’s a big reason why he’s still in the Burlington Bees’ lineup — it’s his defense in center field.
Riley made two diving catches in Saturday’s 10-6 loss to the Lafayette Aviators, the latest in a season of big plays.
“It’s unbelievable,” Bees manager Gary McClure said. “He’s one of the better ones I’ve seen out there.”
Riley has logged 251 1/3 innings in center field this season, the most of anyone at the position in the Prospect League. He leads the league among center fielders with 58 putouts, and he doesn’t have an error.
“Just doing what I do, honestly,” Riley said. “Doing what I can to help the team. If I can’t do it on offense, I’ll do what I can on defense.”
Riley is batting .252 with three home runs and 26 runs batted in this season, but he has just one hit in his last 30 at-bats.
“I’m on kind of a cold streak,” Riley said. “Getting barrels, but they’re getting caught. But that’s baseball.”
Still, he’s on patrol out in center field every game.
McClure raved about the two catches in Saturday’s game, both long runs into the left-center field gap with the perfect dive at the end.
“The first one was unbelievable, the second one was ridiculous,” McClure said. “He’s full-speed in two steps, and he gets such great reads on balls, it’s unbelievable. He caught the one ball basically behind him, with his body toward the wall.
McClure shook his head in admiration.
“Great plays, great plays,” he said.
The second one, on a line drive by Lafayette’s Oscar Ponce in the ninth inning, earned Riley an enthusiastic thank-you point from reliever Jacob Greenan.
“I love coming back in, shaking their hand, them thanking me,” Riley said. “I really appreciate that.”
Riley’s ability to track down fly balls is something that is hard to teach, McClure said.
“He has that instinct — he’s moving when the ball is on the swing,” McClure said. “He reads swings. Good players do that on defense, they have that instinct, and he certainly has that. It’s really something you can’t touch, but he has that instinct. He gets to top speed so quickly. And when he gets to balls, he makes the catch.”
“Basically, it’s getting a good read, getting a good jump,” Riley said. “First couple of steps are big, and then the closing steps are big, too.”
Riley batted .304 with seven home runs and 29 RBIs in 56 games at Southeastern Community College this season.
His summer with the Bees has been a good education as he prepares to play at Eastern Illinois University next season.
“I’ve learned a ton, offensively and defensively,” he said.
The biggest lesson has come at the plate.
“Honestly, it’s been just being able to move on from at-bat to at-bat,” he said. “Just being able to flush one, being able to go on to the next. Just doing whatever you can to help the team.”
The Bees have been hit with plenty of roster turnover in the closing days of the season, but Riley plans on finishing.
“I wasn’t planning on leaving early at all,” he said. “Just stick it out the whole way. Playing 60 games, and then the spring season, it’s a lot. It’s tough on your body. But it’s been a fun experience.”
Photo: Burlington Bees center fielder Lincoln Riley has 58 putouts and no errors this season. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)