By: Will Burchfield
Jose Iglesias might try to downplay how much he enjoys playing defense.
Don’t believe him.
“I mean, I just try to make plays,” he said. “I enjoy the game in general.”
The plays he makes the most, and the most magnificently, are the ones in the field. He does so with a pep in his step, a grin on his face and just enough feather-flaunting that lets everyone in on a dirty little secret: Iglesias knows how good he is with the glove.
He put on another show in the Tigers’ 13-3 win over the Rays on Friday night with two sparkling plays in the fifth inning, the second one even better than the first.
“Both were tough plays I was able to make,” he said matter of factly. Iglesias — and almost no one else.
The first was a slow-roller off the bat of the speedy Peter Bourjos. Iglesias charged in from short, swiped the ball with his glove and whipped it over to first. Too easy.
The second was a pop fly into shallow center field by Steven Souza. Iglesias hopped on his horse, tracked the ball over his head and snared it at full sprint with a basket-style grab as it dropped out of the sky. Then he went for a little jog, well aware he was the center of attention.
Having gotten his full, Iglesias pulled a U-turn in left, stylishly chucked the ball back to the infield – almost as if he we were making a jump throw to first – and then looked over at Justin Upton, who was still standing stunned at the spot Iglesias had come from. Iglesias smiled.
On the pitcher’s mound, Daniel Norris, who had just uncoiled himself from a you-have-to-be-kidding crouch, tipped his cap. Iglesias tipped his back.
He covered 88 feet on the play. Gentle reminder: He’s a shortstop.
“That’s something that you practice and also you’re kind of born with. You just try to make a play for the team,” Iglesias said.
Brad Ausmus played in the majors for 18 years. He’s now managed for four. Typically, when asked to make comparisons to the past, he’ll rack his mind, leaning back in his office chair as he sifts through the years, and slowly come to an answer. Sometimes, he won’t reach one at all.
But when asked if he’s ever come across a shortstop as good as Iglesias at making that over-the-shoulder running catch, Ausmus didn’t blink.
“No,” he said. “And that’s a tougher play than it looks because the outfielder’s are running at him. He’s got great instincts as a defender, including knowing where he needs to be when a ball goes up in the air.”
Said Ian Kinsler, who has considerable perspective himself, “There’s a lot of guys that make that play, he just has a flair for it. The way that he catches the ball, obviously he ran a long way, and he’s not a big dude so it looks like he’s going a lot further than he is. But he’s got an uncanny ability to make that play over his head. He makes it look really special.”
And somehow really easy.
That’s why the fans at Comerica Park came to their feet and cheered, many of them tipping their caps, some of them even bowing. Indeed, this was work of a higher order.
“That was huge. The fans appreciate baseball, not just homers,” said Iglesias. “It was huge for all of us.”
It was biggest for Norris, who was able to work a 1-2-3 inning after the Tigers had scored five runs in the bottom of fourth and staked him to a 6-2 lead. Justin Upton had a hand in the defensive brilliance as well, leaping over the left-field fence to rob Corey Dickerson of a home run and end the inning.
Norris met both of his teammates at the top of the dugout, running to intersect Upton, and dolled out big high-fives with his glove.
“I told Iggy, I was like, ‘I know the one over your shoulder was sick but the one before that was almost as impressive because Bourjos flies.’ That was just a real get-rid-of-it great play,” said Norris, ever cool, his sunglasses perched on his neck. “And then J-Up, man, that was sick.”
Iglesias has been swinging a hot bat recently, his average up to .269 on the season. But his value to the Tigers is quite clearly in the field. He steals hits, he saves runs and makes life a whole lot easier for the pitchers in front of him. And lest anyone think otherwise, Iglesias’ flash is backed up by the numbers. He ranks second among MLB shortstops in Ultimate Zone Rating.
In other words, almost no one plays the position better.
After flashing their leather in the top half of the fifth, the Tigers brandished their bats in the bottom half, scoring five more runs. It was the first time they scored at least five runs in back to back innings since 2008.
If you let it, defense can have that effect.
“The whole inning was great. I believe defense turned to offense,” Iglesias said.
Another effect of strong defense?
“It’s a momentum killer for the other team,” said Ausmus. “All three of those plays really knocked (the Rays’) momentum down and might have created a little more momentum for us.”
“Those are the ones that if they fall,” Norris said, referring to the balls hit by Bourjos and Souza, “you’re like, ‘Dang, man. Bum luck.'”
Instead of a psychological letdown, he experienced an emotional boost.
“After the (second) one Iggy made I was like, I need to take a step off the mound and let him enjoy that because the fans were on their feet for that. I was too, I was tipping my cap,” he said with a smile. “That was incredible.”
Iglesias, a well-spoken five-year vet, doesn’t say much in interviews. He sticks mostly to cliches and stock replies. It’s ironic, given how unique he is in the field.
When asked what he enjoys more, a great defensive play or a big base hit, he tactfully responded, “It depends on the situation of the game. But every time you can do something to help your team win, it’s special.”
Fair. And probably partly true. But watch how much fun Iglesias had in the fifth inning, prancing and dancing at short, beguiling and styling with his glove on his hand, and the answer is clear. This guy was born to play defense.