Beltre giving it another go for the gold
Fresh off first Gold Glove, third sacker working to get better
PEORIA, Ariz. -- The temperature rises at the hot corner at the Peoria Sports Complex as third baseman Adrian Beltre stands on the infield grass, getting peppered with one hard-hit ground ball after another.Practice makes more than perfect. It makes a Gold Glove Award winner. "I know he can't work any harder, but he is," Mariners manager John McLaren said. "You can tell that he is so confident out there. You can tell he's proud. He has worked extremely hard to get where he is right now, and I can tell you, he doesn't want to give that Gold Glove title up to anybody. "He's a marvel at third base, the best third baseman I can remember ever seeing, and is working hard to get better. That's what he's all about." Beltre reached the zenith of defensive excellence last season when American League managers and coaches selected him as the best-fielding third sacker in the league, landing him his first Rawlings Gold Glove Award. "To be able to be named the best third baseman in your league is pretty amazing," Beltre said after practice on Sunday. "I know I had chances before, but to win it, to actually see it, when they call to let you know you have won it as the best defensive third baseman in the American League ... it feels good." The soft-spoken Beltre believes several other AL third basemen also were worthy of the honor.
"It gives me a really good feeling that they recognize what I do to help my team defensively," he said. "It's a really good accomplishment."Beltre hasn't yet picked up the award -- that comes on Opening Day in Seattle -- but he already seems to have his eye on the next one. With seven-time National League Gold Glove winner Scott Rolen playing for the Blue Jays this season, another challenge faces Beltre. But that is not why his daily routine in Spring Training includes fielding numerous ground balls hit by Pedro Grifol, the Mariners' Minor League coordinator of instruction. "The first couple of days are more to make sure I track the ball good, make sure my hands are where I want them to be," Beltre said, "and then I take ground balls to react to it. Everything at third is kind of reaction. "The first round, I take soft ground balls so I can see it good and use my hands, and then after that I tell whoever's hitting ground balls to 'let it go.'" And just when will Beltre "let it go?" "I'm pretty close," he said. "I can get a little more into it." It's hard to tell who gets the best workout -- Beltre or Grifol. Exactly what makes a Gold Glove third baseman is quick hands, quick feet, strong arm -- and courage. "I don't think I have soft hands," said Beltre, who grew up playing on some pretty shabby fields in the Dominican Republic. "I do my best to keep the ball in front of me. I probably am not one of the most mechanically sound third basemen.
"When the ball is hit hard to me, my focus is to keep it in front of me. If I do that, I know I'll have a chance to get him out."His motto: Whatever it takes. Beltre made difficult plays look easy last season, sort of the way Brooks Robinson did in another era. In fact, it was a similar play -- but only better -- Beltre made last season against the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre in Toronto that personified his defense. With two outs and a runner on second base, Alex Rios hit a shot down the third-base line. Beltre dove to his right, snagged the ball backhanded and fell to the ground, at least five feet into foul territory. He rolled over and, while sitting, made a strong throw to first base for what should have been the third out of the inning. But first-base umpire Rick Reed, perhaps surprised there even was a play at the bag, called Rios safe, although replays showed that the runner was out. "I think it's the best play I've every seen by a third baseman," McLaren said. Better, perhaps, than Robinson's gem in Game 1 of the 1970 World Series, when he went far to his right and into foul ground to snare a barely-fair chopper by Lee May, wheeled and threw a strike to first base for the out. What makes Beltre so good on defense? "It's everything," McLaren said. "He can throw from any angle, has a strong arm, is fearless, agile, and has quick feet." Did he say fearless? Something you probably didn't know might explain why Beltre's defense is so good. He never wears a protective cup. "I never felt comfortable wearing a cup," the third baseman said. "I tried when I signed, but I couldn't use it. I didn't feel comfortable at all. I couldn't run, I couldn't move." Say a little prayer for the man. Beltre's "signature" play is fielding a slow ground ball, either a chopper or bunt, and throwing out the runner at first base. "Those are my favorites," he said. "I love it when a guy bunts on me. For some reason, it's my favorite play." Fielding bunts is a difficult play to practice, especially during batting practice. But Beltre apparently has made that play so often during his career in game situations that he has it down pat. Charge the ball, scoop it up barehanded, and without breaking stride, gun the runner down at first. Try it sometime. "He gets so much on the ball down here," said McLaren, demonstrating a lower-than-sidearm throw. "He just snaps it and the ball has great velocity. You can tell that he has worked on that play a lot. "He makes so many great plays that I think in his mind that there isn't a play he can't make. I'm not going to say that's a negative, but sometimes that might get him into trouble -- by trying to do too much at times. "But as many plays he has made, I can see why he would attempt everything, because some of the plays he has made I didn't think he had a chance of making." "I think it helps me that I'm not afraid to make an error," Beltre said. "I'd rather make an error than be holding the ball in my hand when I've got a chance to get the guy out. Sometimes I might make a stupid error because I don't just hold the ball." Indeed, Beltre still has not met a play he doesn't think he can make, and that's part of what makes him so good -- so golden.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.