I try to avoid gloating in print, but the Red Sox performance Friday night was just what I predicted yesterday before game time. They became a defensive juggernaut with the insertion of Iglesias in the the infield. Even Mike Napoli, never touted for his prowess at first base, delivered several critical stops earning the commendation of pitcher John Lackey. As ESPN noted this morning:
Indeed, while Napoli deserves loads of credit for his stellar play with the glove, the entire infield was on its game. And it had to be, for Lackey was getting the Cleveland hitters to pound everything into the ground. In addition to eight strikeouts, he recorded 12 outs on the ground and just one through the air in seven stellar innings.
Iglesias received notice as the “brand-new third baseman” for making his two chances “neither of which were routine, look easy.” Operating from the corner instead of the center of the diamond, Iglesias still sets the tone for the defense. Both Dustin Pedroia and Lackey himself made athletic plays to cut down potential rallies by the Indians.
The Red Sox are a different team when the defense raises its game. Mike Carp ended a 0 for 21 slump with a titanic three-run homer. Ellsbury drove in two runs for a month-long total of 5. And the team left only three runners on base. They often leave that many on in one inning.
With Iglesias on the field, we have a new version of the Red Sox, the “Darned Sox.” They stand up, they hold, they stretch, they make plays and even drive in runs. A few more runs won’t hurt these Sox.
Every year I think the Red Sox are upgrading their defense, but I’m disappointed. Last year the left side seemed shaky. Crawford was getting used to left field, shortstop was a revolving door, and Youkilis did not seem comfortable returning to third base. Catchers had a problem keeping runners off second base.
In Spring this all looks improved, but, of course, it’s early. In spite of the uncertainty at shortstop, the candidates look like solid fielders. By trading Marco Scutaro, the Sox seemed to putting their faith in defense at shortstop, and that’s a switch. Jose Iglesias, their shortstop of the future, will probably always be known for defense, and his placeholders, Aviles and Punto, bring versatility as well as range in the infield. Viewing the shortstop as a defensive anchor has always seemed the best perspective in building a starting line-up, but the Red Sox have always preferred offense in their recent parade of shortstops, beginning with Nomar Garciaparra and finishing with Scutaro.
Youkilis should be a solid third baseman when he’s healthy and settled in the position. Last year was probably not a fair test of his defense, given the plague of injuries he suffered. When he came up as third baseman, he fielded the position consistently, and he should return to that form.
The outfield has usually been fine at Fenway, but more challenged in the cavernous stadiums in the west. It will be interesting to see if the new left and right fielders cover this territory. Ellsbury is a great centerpiece to build the outfield around, but he’ll need help in the larger ballparks. At the least we know that Ryan Sweeney can cover a lot of ground, and a healthy and confident Carl Crawford can cover left field-and-a-half.
The catching position is definitely a defensive upgrade with Saltamalachia and Shoppach. Salty has already made some pinpoint throws to second base, and Shoppach has one of the highest percentages of throwing out base stealers in the American League. It looks like base runners will be a little more cautious trying to claim second base under the Valentine administration. However, this is definitely a work in progress.
If stronger defense has become a theme of fortifying this baseball team, it will definitely be a better team than the 2011 edition. Keeping an eye on the developing defensive alignment might tell us more about what kind of team to expect in 2012. The offense will take care of itself.