I had to laugh when I saw Neifi Perez mentioned.

Maturing Red has MVP to lean on
Tejada a phone call away if Encarnacion needs support
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com


The Reds third base job is Edwin Encarnacion's to lose. He's hitting .484 this spring. (Al Behrman/AP)

SARASOTA, Fla. -- If Reds third baseman Edwin Encarnacion has trouble picking up an aspect of the Major League game, all he has to do is pick up a phone.

He can speed dial "T," for Tejada -- as in Miguel Tejada.

Maybe he should dial "MVP," instead?

Like many teenage boys in the Dominican Republic, Encarnacion was an aspiring shortstop with deep appreciation of fellow countrymen that achieved success in the big leagues. His two favorite players were Tejada and Neifi Perez.

"I watched those guys as a little kid. I learned a lot," said Encarnacion, still relatively young at 23 years old.

Some people go through life hoping to catch a glimpse of, or an autograph from, their chosen idol. Over the past few offseasons, Encarnacion has been fortunate enough to be a winter ball teammate of Tejada with the Aguilas club in the Dominican.

Tejada, of course, is a superstar shortstop from the Baltimore Orioles and was the American League's Most Valuable Player in 2002.

"He talked to me every day about the game," Encarnacion said. "That made me real happy that he wanted to talk with me about how I have to play the game, what I have to do and all that stuff.

"That was very cool. I said, 'Whoa.' I never thought I'd play with those guys, like Neifi Perez or Tejada and [Albert] Pujols."

The Tejada helpline isn't cut once winter baseball season is over, nor is the friendship. The veteran has remained a mentor for the young Encarnacion as he worked his way up, and eventually to, the Major League level.

When the need arises, Encarnacion will phone Tejada to talk. Sometimes, Tejada will place a call to the kid to see if he needs anything.

"He gave me his number for any question I have or a problem," said the soft-spoken Encarnacion. "He said, 'Call me, if I can help you, I'll help you out.' That made me happy that a player like Tejada, an MVP guy. ... I never thought it would be like that. There are not too many players like him."

As Encarnacion prepares in Spring Training for what's expected to be his first full Major League season, Tejada is representing the Dominican at the World Baseball Classic.

No doubt, the mentor would be pleased if he's been checking out box scores from Reds Grapefruit League games.

Through 11 spring games Wednesday, Encarnacion was batting .484 (15-for-31) with six home runs and leading the Majors with 14 RBIs. His slugging percentage was a hefty 1.258 with a .543 on-base percentage.

Entering spring, Reds manager Jerry Narron made it clear that the Reds' starting third baseman's job was Encarnacion's to lose. If the young player faltered, Narron had a contingency plan in place with veteran Rich Aurilia.

So far Encarnacion appears to be clinging to job security -- with a bear trap.

"I know that I have to play to not lose my spot," Encarnacion said. "I have to keep playing hard to keep my job."

"I think Eddie knows how big a year it is for him," Narron said. "He has a chance to establish himself as a Major League player."

Long a prospect on the rise, Encarnacion participated in the last three Major League All-Star Futures games and drew great reviews as a hitter. He batted .314 with 15 homers in 78 games for Triple-A Louisville last year and earned his first big league promotion by June. By the end of July, he was called up for good when Joe Randa was traded to San Diego.

In 69 games overall at Cincinnati, Encarnacion batted .232 with nine homers and 31 RBIs.

"Last year when he was up, he was hitting in the eight-hole all year for us when he was there and had no protection behind him," Narron said. "It put him at a little bit of a disadvantage coming into the big leagues."

Now Encarnacion feels he's entered this spring with the advantage of having a Major League season under his belt.

"I feel more comfortable and confident with my game," he said. "I learned a lot in the big leagues last year. I saw how they play the game and the process. I saw the veteran guys and that's what I did."

After he committed 10 errors in 180 total chances last year, the organization would like Encarnacion to refine his defensive skills and improve his throwing. New bench/infield coach Bucky Dent has been helping him and there have been signs Encarnacion's defense remains a work in progress.

In a recent spring game, Encarnacion misplayed a bad hop because he was standing too upright and unable to adjust. A similar bad hop grounder came his way a couple of days later, and he played it correctly.

"Baseball 101 -- it's easier to come up on a bad hop than it is to go down on one," Narron said.

"I know I'm going to be a better guy with my defense," Encarnacion said.

The certainly should be a few more lessons to learn down the road. If there's something Encarnacion can't figure out from someone on the Reds ...

Well, help is just a phone call away.

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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