For Tigers Pitchers, Fielding Comes First
By JACK CURRY
LAKELAND, Fla., Feb. 16 — Detroit Tigers Manager Jim Leyland wanted a timeout. He noticed that some of his infamous fielding pitchers lowered their gloves while running from the mound to cover first base. So Leyland lifted his hands, stopped the workout and started instructing.
Leyland reminded the pitchers to keep their gloves chest-high after they caught the throw and to keep running through the base. By dropping their gloves even a few inches, Leyland demonstrated how that unnecessary movement made them more susceptible to having the ball possibly wiggle loose.
“Just catch it and put a squeeze on it,” Leyland said.
The drill resumed. A coach tapped a grounder to first. Joel Zumaya dashed off the mound toward the base. He kept his glove high, searched for first, then muffed the throw. The ball fell at Zumaya’s feet for his first miscue of spring training.
Because Leyland had described what to do and Zumaya proceeded to flub the most essential aspect of the exercise by closing his glove prematurely, every pair of eyes and every pair of ears awaited Leyland’s reaction.
“Well,” Leyland eventually said, “you got to catch it.”
You got to catch it. You got to throw it accurately. You got to field your position efficiently. You got to promise that you will never repeat what you did against the St. Louis Cardinals last October. Leyland could have spouted each of those sentences, but he limited himself to the first one.
Four months after the Tigers set a sloppy record when their pitchers made errors in five consecutive World Series games, they gathered on the practice fields at Joker Marchant Stadium to take another stab at mastering those pesky fielding issues. The Tigers had a lot more guests than usual, guests armed with notebooks, tape recorders and cameras.
“You all got to have some fresh stuff to write about and that’s cool because we kicked the ball in the World Series,” closer Todd Jones said. “We set a record. That’s an easy story.”
So basic that Jones compared it to a joke.
“How many Detroit Tigers pitchers does it take to screw up the World Series?” Jones said. “Eleven.”
When Detroit’s pitchers assembled in two groups of 10 and one group of nine on three different fields, about 50 members of the news media were watching. In the past, there probably would have been fewer than 10 reporters yawning through a practice that Leyland described as “pretty boring.”
Pitcher’s fielding practice, or P.F.P., is a mundane exercise that is performed each day throughout the spring. The key is the repetition, which is supposed to help pitchers become so acclimated that they field grounders and bunts, cover first, throw to bases and make pickoff throws without missteps.
But, as the Tigers proved in the World Series, what they did in February and March hardly made them impeccable fielders in October. Actually, the Tigers were much sloppier throwers than fielders; four of the five errors came on misguided throws.
“We caught them,” Leyland said. “Our aim was a little bit bad when we threw them.”
Leyland pondered postponing the fielding sessions, but decided not to when he was warned that such an action might generate even more attention. Leyland did not have groundskeepers wet the field to simulate the soggy conditions in St. Louis, as he once suggested, but he might do that later in the spring.
Jones said that the pitchers cracked one-liners and made fun of each other during 45 minutes of P.F.P., but it seemed as if they were serious about doing everything right. Leyland stalked from field to field, shouting encouragement. He chewed gum, held a fungo bat that he never used and studied his players.
Leyland watched Justin Verlander, who made a wild pickoff throw to first in Game 1 and another poor throw to third on a bunt in Game 5. There was Jones, who muffed a grounder in Game 2. There was Zumaya, who made a haphazard throw to third when he should have thrown to second for a possible double play in Game 3. There was Fernando Rodney, who grabbed a bunt in Game 4 and flipped it to first like a shot-put. The errors led to seven unearned runs and damaged Detroit’s chances of winning the title.
How prominent were the fielding foibles? Verlander, who has been working out here this winter, said one member of the grounds crew repeatedly teased him about his miscues. Verlander said a newspaper could not print some of the words he and the man with the rake had jokingly exchanged.
Zumaya, who said he was “haunted” by his error, noted that he made only one bad throw to third during P.F.P. He added that it felt good to break in a new glove and “get all the evil spirits out of you.”
When Zumaya was asked if evil spirits doomed him in the World Series, he said, “It was me, not thinking.”
Jones was the only pitcher who instantly experienced defensive déjà vu as he mishandled the first grounder he tried to spear Friday.
“I’m not a good fielder,” Jones said.
Leyland treated the first question about P.F.P. with mock seriousness, going off the record to say that the biggest difference was that the pitchers “caught a couple.” Later, Leyland admitted he was being playful and allowed the mischievous remarks to be used on the record.
Leyland said he thought Detroit’s pitchers would catch it and throw it much better if they get to play this October. He is probably correct, especially since the Tigers could not do much worse than they did last October.