Fundamentals pay dividends on final play
SEATTLE -- On some morning during the dog days of every Spring Training, without fail, Tigers manager Jim Leyland will bring his team on the field before batting practice at Joker Marchant Stadium. The sole purpose will be to practice relay throws and cutoffs.
The play that ended Wednesday's 14-inning duel is the example why.
"That's one you work on every year in Spring Training," Leyland said. "It's a pretty good fundamental play."
The end result came down to catcher Brayan Pena absorbing a collision with Justin Smoak, but it took a process to get him the ball in time to even have a play.
From the moment Torii Hunter chased down Dustin Ackley's liner in the right-field corner, the process was on. While second baseman Omar Infante readied for the throw, first baseman Prince Fielder hustled to be in the right spot to back him up.
"That was tough," Hunter said, "because we were playing them in the gap, playing them deep. When Ackley hit the ball, I knew I had to get over there and just get it in. I felt like they were just going to send him regardless, so I grabbed it and really didn't even take a step, just threw the ball just to get it in."
Hunter didn't have a chance to worry about the perfect throw, which made Fielder's positioning as important as Infante.
"We just executed a play," Leyland said. "The first guy goes out and if you miss the first guy, the trailer's there. Prince was right where he was supposed to be, turned and made the throw."
The throw was wide, but to the third-base side, which allowed Pena to field it and turn to brace for the collision.
The tricky part, Pena said, was keeping his eye on the ball coming in while trying to avoid being distracted by the runner coming into his view.
Pena said his focus was on blocking Justin Smoak's path to the plate as much as possible. He learned his lesson on that play during his previous stop with the Royals, when then-Ranger Mike Napoli slid under his tag attempt.
"That was exactly the same play," Pena said. "The throw came from the first baseman, so I was blindsided. When I was ready to block home plate, he slid under. I was making sure that didn't happen to me this time. I was just trying to go and catch the baseball and look for the runner as soon as possible. That was what I didn't do last time."
What impressed Leyland beyond the execution, he said, was the celebration. Despite an 0-for-6, five-strikeout performance, Fielder not only made an impact play on defense, but he celebrated like he had just hit a home run.
"He was as happy as anybody," Leyland said. "He had a tough night, but he wound up having a great night, because he won us a ballgame with that play."