That running, over-the-shoulder catch by Giancarlo Stanton in Team USA’s victory over Puerto Rico on Tuesday night?
It was not an unusual play for the Marlins’ right fielder.
Stanton, 23, is best known for his prodigious power, but defense also is a major part of his game, and he attributes his development in the outfield to two factors:
* He was so bad initially, he had no choice but to improve.
* He needs to work in the outfield, because he would never run otherwise.
“I don’t like to run for no reason. I don’t like to run for fun. I do my conditioning with outfield work,” Stanton said Wednesday as Team USA prepared to face the Dominican Republic on Thursday night.
“I’ll just run around everywhere. It doesn’t matter if I’m running 30, 40, 50 yards and go get the ball, then go the opposite direction, back and forth. I’m running the whole field. It’s every angle, every which way, low line drives, ground balls, balls over my head, all stuff.”
To think, Stanton didn’t even play outfield until his junior year at Notre Dame H.S. in Sherman Oaks, Calif. Prior to that, he was a first baseman. And when the Marlins selected him in the second round of the 2007 draft, he knew he was far from a finished product.
Unlike, say, Bryce Harper, who was a year-round baseball rat, Stanton also played football and basketball in high school. He was a wide receiver and cornerback in football, and at 6-foot-5, 233 pounds, heaven knows what kind of tight end he might have been in the NFL.
Anyway, back to his desire to be a better outfielder.
“Honestly, it’s because I was terrible at it,” Stanton said. “I was raw to begin with, even hitting. In the outfield, in my first couple years of professional ball, you could see that I had the tools, but they weren’t put together at all.”
Enter Tarrik Brock, the Marlins’ minor-league coordinator for outfield play, baserunning and bunting.
Brock and Stanton live near each other in the San Fernando Valley. They would work on Stanton’s outfield play five days a week in the offseason. (Stanton trained more on his own this past winter at UCLA, but again is doing extra work with Brock in spring training.)
“He was really green when we got him,” Brock said. “But when he first came in, he was like a golden retriever. He just wanted to go get balls. He knew he had to work on his drop steps, work on his angles. But he would still just go get it. He played defense like a wide receiver or tight end.”
Stanton said his football training did him good — “Absolutely. Going to get the ball is basically like going for a Hail Mary on a football field.”
And, believe it or not, he so fancies himself a defender, he played 42 games in center in the Class A South Atlantic League in 2008.
“In his heart of hearts,” Brock said, chuckling, “he thinks he’s a center fielder.”
Stanton said he loves taking balls off the bat for entire groups of hitters during batting practice, playing a shallow right in cavernous Marlins ballpark, then running back to catch balls over his head the way he did Tuesday night.
Advanced defensive metrics portray Stanton as well above-average. The Fielding Bible ranked him third among major league right fielders last season, behind only Jason Heyward and Josh Reddick. Stanton was plus-19, meaning that he made 19 plays above the number that an average fielder would make, according to the video scouts at Baseball Info Solutions.
“The sky’s the limit,” Brock said. “This guy can be a Gold Glover. And this guy wants to be one. He doesn’t want to be known just as a guy who hits 30-plus home runs. He wants to be known as a guy who can go out and run down balls.”
Not to mention a guy who attacks runners going for an extra base the same way he attacks pitchers.
“He’s a gentle giant except when he’s in the middle of doing something,” Brock said. “Then it’s like, ‘Nope, don’t even try.’ ”
FLAG STORY I
There is a story behind the torn and tattered U.S. flag that hangs in the Team USA dugout during games in the World Baseball Classic.
U.S. trainer Rick Lembo said he received the flag in the mail about three weeks ago. It came from a soldier who is a friend of Lembo’s and fellow native of Syracuse, N.Y.
The soldier, Lembo said, explained in a letter that his troops flew the flag at their camps in Iraq in 2006 and Afghanistan in 2009. The troops included many baseball fans, and they listened to WBC games those years on Armed Forces Radio.
In the letter, the soldier asked Lembo to relate to Team USA players how important it was for them to represent the U.S., how meaningful it was for the soldiers to watch baseball, how they fought so they could come home and take their own children to games.
Lembo said he told the story to Team USA manager Joe Torre, for whom he previously worked with the Dodgers. Torre asked Lembo to bring the flag to Phoenix and address the team on the eve of its first WBC.
“You could hear a pin drop in the room,” said John Blundell, a media-relations representative for Team USA. “It really hit home.”
Lembo said he uses Velcro to post the flag in the dugout before each game; Team USA received permission from the WBC to cover an official tournament logo.
Ryan Braun carried the flag onto the field after Team USA’s victory over Canada, which enabled the U.S. to advance to the second round.
FLAG STORY II
A number of readers on Twitter have asked why the American flag patches on the right sleeves of the Team USA uniforms depict the flag in reverse.
Paul Seiler, the executive director/CEO of USA Baseball, explained flag etiquette to the players at the same meeting at which Lembo spoke before the start of the WBC, Blundell said.
According to Army Regulation 670-1, “Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia,” the flag patch is to be worn “so that the star field faces forward, or to the flag’s own right.
“When worn in this manner, the flag is facing to the observer’s right, and gives the effect of the flag flying in the breeze as the wearer moves forward. The appropriate replica for the right shoulder sleeve is identified as the ‘reverse side flag.’ ”
‘EL PELOTERO DE LA PATRIA’
That’s Spanish for “Player of the Country” — Miguel Tejada’s nickname in the Dominican Republic.
Tejada, who turns 39 on May 25, was viewed less kindly by many in the U.S. after he pleaded guilty in 2009 to lying to congressional investigators about an ex-teammate’s use of steroids and human-growth hormone.
In baseball’s Mitchell Report, Tejada’s former Oakland teammate, outfielder Adam Piatt, said that he discussed steroid use with Tejada and sold him testosterone and HGH, but never actually saw him use any substances.
Messy stuff. But in the Dominican, Tejada remains a hero — and for good reason.
“He plays winter ball every year. He plays in the Caribbean Series. He’s always there for the country, playing every WBC,” said Dominican Republic general manager Moises Alou, a former major league outfielder.
“I pretty much had to take Tejada. But I didn’t bring Tejada because I felt I had to. I brought him because he had a very good season in winter ball. Since I took over as GM of the team, that’s one thing I preach. I wanted to bring guys who are ready to play.”
Tejada, who is 3-for-7 with a double and walk in the tournament, likely will be in the Dominican lineup Thursday night as the DH against Team USA knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, manager Tony Pena said.
While the 15-year veteran did not play in the majors last season, he is expected to make the Kansas City Royals’ roster as a utility infielder after agreeing to a minor league contract.
“I know his situation with the Royals. He needs to make the team,” Alou said. “I asked him, ‘Are you sure you want to come?’ He decided he wanted to be here for his country.”
PARTY IN THE D.R. DUGOUT!
Old-school types in North America bristle at the on-field antics of the Dominican players, who pose after homers, make hand gestures to each other and spill out of their dugout to celebrate big plays and runs.
Pena, though, says his players know their time together is limited, and want to savor the experience as much as possible.
“This is a unique group,” Pena said. “What they’re showing is emotion, and what I call our culture. It’s not like we’re trying to show up anybody. No. No. I want them to enjoy it.
“Every single game is like the last game of the World Series. Every single game. You can be eliminated every time. We celebrate every single victory because that’s what this tournament is. You lose, you’re out. And every time you win, it’s a step forward.”
Pena overstated things — only the championship round is single elimination — but certainly every WBC game carries significance.
“I want to make sure they have fun,” Pena said. “We don’t know when, if we ever, are going to get together with this group again. We had better enjoy each other as much as we can.”
A SECRET WEAPON FOR THE U.S.
Twins left-hander Glen Perkins looks at his Team USA teammate, Marlins righty Steve Cishek, and thinks, “Life is unfair.”
“You shouldn’t be able to throw 95 from down there,” Perkins said, referring to Cishek’s sidearm delivery. “He’s throwing as hard as anyone on the team. I don’t think he’s thrown a breaking ball yet. He might not have to.”
Perkins is exaggerating slightly — Cishek indeed throws a changeup and slider, and only rarely touches 95 mph. But to Team USA players, coaches and manager Joe Torre, Cishek is indeed a revelation.
He plays for the Marlins. Who knew?
Torre and pitching coach Greg Maddux admit they weren’t terribly aware of Cishek entering the tournament. But after general manager Joe Garagiola Jr. recommended Cishek, Torre and Maddux asked friends around the game what they thought.
Torre and Maddux liked what they heard — and like even better what they now see.
“He was kind of underrated … even better than what people had talked about,” Maddux said.
Cishek, 24, was the Marlins’ fifth-round pick out of Carson Newman College in 2007. In two-plus seasons with Miami, he has a 2.57 ERA, .619 opponents’ OPS and strikeout rate of 9.2 per nine innings. He also earned 15 saves in 19 chances after taking over the closer’s role last July.
A SLEEPER FOR THE RED SOX
One of the surprises of Tuesday night’s game between Team USA and Puerto Rico was the performance of right-hander Jose De La Torre, a 5-foot-10, 185-pound reliever who is in big-league camp with the Red Sox.
De La Torre, 27, entered the game with the bases loaded and two outs in the fifth inning, and retired Adam Jones on a groundout to keep the score 3-0 U.S. He then started the sixth by allowing a single to Stanton and walk to Ben Zobrist — and proceeded to strike out Jimmy Rollins, Brandon Phillips and Braun.
Of De La Torre’s 25 pitches, only four exceeded 90 mph; he mostly threw sliders, curveballs and changeups. His confidence in his off-speed stuff and overall toughness have impressed Red Sox officials, who believe he could surface in the majors at some point.