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Benefield: Healdsburg's Connor Browning turns a rare unassisted triple play

The moment could have been a tipping point. Down 4-0 in the bottom of the fourth inning, the Elsie Allen baseball team was rallying. The Lobos had loaded the bases with their first three batters of the inning.

When junior Luis Luna ripped a line drive up the middle, all three base runners thought the ball had found a gap, so they took off.

But sophomore Healdsburg second baseman Connor Browning backhanded the line drive. Out one. He moved to his right to tag second. Out two. Then he turned to his left to see the runner from first base heading his way. He took a couple of steps toward him and tagged him with his glove. Out three.

An unassisted triple play. A play rarer than a perfect game. A play so rare, only 15 have been recorded in the history of Major League Baseball.

When Browning trotted to the dugout in that April 13 game after snuffing out a potential Lobos rally all by his lonesome, Healdsburg coach Justin Herrguth had some explaining to do.

“He was kind of smiling,” Herrguth said of Browning. “I’m like, ‘Dude. That was unassisted. Do you understand the rarity of that?’ These kids don’t know. It was kind of cute.”

Herrguth has been a baseball guy all his life, so he knew what he just witnessed.

“I’m 40 years old and that was the second time I’ve seen one,” he said.

So, too, according to Herrguth, did the Greyhounds’ bat boy and serious baseball enthusiast, fifth-grader Noah Proctor.

“He was probably more excited than anyone,” Herrguth said, recalling that Noah shouted, ‘Coach! That was an unassisted triple play!’

“We are talking about a 10-year-old fifth-grader. It was one of those things that took a moment to set in. What just happened?”

And it’s a moment that will likely stay with Browning forever.

Eric Bruntlett of Santa Rosa can relate. He’s the last guy to record an unassisted triple play in Major League Baseball.

Bruntlett was playing second base for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2009 when he ended the game against the New York Mets in much the same way Browning did: snagged a line drive, tagged the bag, tagged the runner.

Bruntlett, who appeared in three College World Series while playing at Stanford and won the World Series with the Phillies in 2008, said that moment on Aug. 23, 2009, is what people remember most about his career.

“That’s what people remember for sure,” he said. “It’s such a rare thing.”

But that rare thing - Bruntlett even called it “dumb luck” in his case - earned him a spot in Cooperstown.

“I got a call saying, ‘Congratulations, it’s an amazing feat. Do you have anything you could donate?’” he said. “I wasn’t going to give up my glove, it was the middle of the season. It was my baby.”

So Bruntlett sent his ?No. 4 Phillies road jersey. It’s there next to a video loop of his getting all three outs of the inning in about four seconds.

“You don’t really have time to think about it,” he said of the play.

And he doesn’t recall being particularly celebrated that night, beyond seeing his play run on repeat on all the evening and weekly sports highlight shows. But he knows it granted him a place in baseball history.

And he said for Browning to have pulled it off, the kid must have solid skills.

“He must have good baseball instincts,” he said. “He must be a good player.”

And he’s a good player Bruntlett would like to meet. Friends with Herrguth, Bruntlett said he may head up to Healdsburg to meet Browning before the season ends.

For Lobos coach Carlos Pena, the moment stung a little, but he just had to chuckle. He thought perhaps the Elsie Allen squad was on the verge of a breakthrough.

Instead, they were on the wrong end of a momentous play.

“Bases were loaded, nobody out, my meat part of the lineup - it could have been a tipping point for us,” he said. “Oh well.”

In the Lobos’ defense, Pena said he thought Luna’s hit was going to make it out of the infield. So, too, did the runners.

“It was a good line drive,” he said. “I was thinking it was heading up the middle.”

By the time the dust cleared, Pena was left standing near third base wondering what had just unfolded.

“We were all looking at each other,” he said. “My runner on first was like, ‘What happened? I thought the ball went through.’”

Pena called it a teaching moment.

And in time, he thinks his guys will appreciate the role they played.

“It will be a smiling moment 10 years down the road,” he said. “‘Remember that triple play against us in high school?’”

For Browning, it seems the whole thing is still sinking in.

“You don’t hear of many triple plays and it went unassisted? It’s kind of crazy,” he said.

“Once I got back into the dugout and my coaches were just praising me on how great of a play it was and what had just happened, it really started to sink in,” he said.

And teammates?

“They were amazed,” he said.

But perhaps more because Browning quashed a potentially dangerous rally, rather than because he had pulled off such a rare feat.

“They were pretty happy because the bases were loaded and we had no outs,” he said. “It was a really big play. They could have gotten runs and made it a close game. It was momentum for us.”

Momentum? Yes. A memory for a lifetime? Triple yes.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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