Brewers' defense gets a boost
It was just another inning in an otherwise unimportant spring training game at Maryvale Baseball Park.
Yet sprinkled within the routine were a couple of tantalizing glimpses of what the Milwaukee Brewers hope will be an improved infield defense.
The first came on a ground ball hit back up the box past starting pitcher Chris Narveson. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez ranged far to his left, vacuumed the ball up behind second base and made a strong off-balance throw to first base for the out.
Just a few pitches later, Gonzalez made his presence felt again. This time, he ranged deep in the hole between shortstop and third base, made a nice backhand grab, planted, and fired over to first for the second out.
In the moment, Gonzalez earned nothing more than some appreciative applause from the fans. But over the course of a 162-game season, it's those kinds of plays that could ultimately make the difference as the Brewers attempt to defend their National League Central Division title and return to the playoffs.
"You look at the play Gonzalez made, a lot of guys would have had to dive, pop up and throw it," Narveson said of Gonzalez's initial play, the more difficult of the two.
"Well, he reaches far out there, has balance and throws it nice and easy. There's no gauge for that. It's huge to be able to have that behind you, playing defense. That's one of those things that gets overlooked that people don't really think about.
"As a pitcher, it's a boost and a confidence thing—'Hey, as long as they hit it on the ground, we're probably going to make a play on it.' "
The same couldn't always be said last year, when Milwaukee won a franchise-record 96 games and fell just short of its first World Series appearance since 1982 with an offense-oriented team that came apart defensively at the worst possible time—the NLCS.
The Brewers committed four errors in a Game 5 loss in St. Louis and then helped seal their fate with three errors in the fifth inning of the Cardinals' Game 6 clincher at Miller Park. The performance wasn't out of character, considering Milwaukee finished 22nd among 30 teams in fielding percentage (.982) in the regular season.
The Brewers' infield had the most trouble over that 162-game span.
First baseman Prince Fielder (15) and third baseman Casey McGehee (20) led NL regulars in errors, while Rickie Weeks (15) finished in a tie for the most at second base despite missing 39 games because of injury. Then there was Yuniesky Betancourt, who committed the third-most errors at shortstop (21) while also drawing a great deal of criticism for his lack of range in either direction.