As Chase Field lay momentarily dormant on Thursday afternoon, recovering from the Diamondbacks' 3-1 Game 1 win over the Cubs the night before and readying itself for 50,000 people to converge for Game 2, a crowd of fewer than 10 was taking in a baseball game 15 miles away, a mid-afternoon contest between the Rangers and Dodgers at a ballpark advertised as the Arizona home of the Padres and Mariners.
Measured against big league playoff baseball, Fall Instructional League play is, almost by definition, the opposite extreme. There's no scoreboard, no names on the uniforms, no coverage, no fanfare.
But that doesn't mean there aren't singular talents. It was in the same uniform and in that setting that Thursday heroes Travis Hafner and Doug Davis once played as Texas prospects. One Rangers player in particular stood out for me yesterday, as I expected he would, but not nearly how I expected he would.
The box score, if there was one, would read an unremarkable 1 for 4, including an opposite field pop-up that fell in for a single, a lazy opposite-field flyout, two strikeouts, and a walk. Engel Beltre didn't fill up the box score in the Rangers' two-run win over the Dodgers, but he lived up to the reputation that he's one of those players you just can't take your eyes off of.
When we got to the side field and leaned against the back of the five-row riser that made up a third of the seating for the game, Texas was in the field. Michael Main was busy throwing an explosive array of power pitches, coaxing lots of foul pop-ups and bad swings. One Los Angeles hitter lobbed a soft liner to center field, but before it could land, in came Beltre, whose great jump allowed him to intercept the shot at shoetop level. My first instinct, not yet knowing who was in center for Texas , was that it might have been celebrated speed merchant Julio Borbon.
No, the play was made by Beltre, whose build is more likely to remind you of a utility infielder than a player whose bat has invoked comparisons to Ken Griffey Jr. and Darryl Strawberry. (Beltre has the same lean frame that those two did when they were drafted number one out of high school, though Beltre yields four inches of height to Griffey and half a foot to Strawberry. He's built more like Alfonso Soriano, like a young Jimmy Rollins, like I imagine a young Ichiro Suzuki was built. Like a bat bag. An athletic, shrink-wrapped, hermetically sealed bat bag,)
A couple innings later, Beltre ended a rough inning for righthander Kyle Ocampo by cutting down a runner trying to score from second base on a hard single up the middle, firing a one-hop laser to catcher Manuel Pina.
He then led off the next inning with a walk, took third on a Miguel Alfonzo single to center, and tried to score on a shallow flyout to left field, getting erased on a great throw to the plate.
Minutes later, a right-handed Dodgers hitter smoked a ball to the gap in right center field -- closer to right than to center -- with severe enough furious slice on it that it looked like right fielder David Paisano might track it down.
But there was Beltre, darting into view, seemingly out of nowhere, and flagging the ball down at full speed with a backhand to end the inning. His and Paisano's legs glanced off each other, prompting every trainer and every coach to jump to his feet, if not into the outfield. Both stayed on the ground for a few minutes but ultimately both were OK, staying in the game.
In the top of the ninth inning, Beltre got his lone hit of the day, dumping a flare down the left field line for a single. Elvis Andrus's second walk of the game moved Beltre to second, and he came around to score on an Alfonzo single.
In the bottom of the ninth, the Dodgers were mounting a bit of a rally against Andrew Laughter when Beltre fielded a single to center and killed the runner from second at the plate, unleashing an absolute laser on the fly.
Beltre saw lots of pitches on Thursday, showing obvious bat speed even though he didn't make a lot of good contact on the day. But you see the defensive tools, the phenomenal closing speed and devastatingly strong arm, and watch him step in as a leadoff hitter with what could almost be described as a small frame, and the picture you being to develop in your mind as to what type of player he is disintegrates in the face of that .310/.388/.583 line he put up as a 17-year-old in the Arizona League after coming over in the Eric Gagne trade.
He has a real chance to be a special player.
Other observations from yesterday's game:
Main looked really, really good.
Carlos Pimentel had command issues (mostly up in the zone) but the Dodgers never got a good swing off him. Serious velocity.
For some players, the ball just sounds different coming off their bat. Some can spin a breaking ball in such a way that you know the hitter has no chance before the pitch is halfway to the plate. There are others, like Andrus, who you can tell are different simply by how they carry themselves. I'm struggling as to how to explain it. It's not really a swagger that Andrus has. It's more of a comfortable magnetism. He reminds me of a feature tailback, or a really good cover corner, with that smile that says he knows he's going to beat you more often than not. He's going to be a leader.
Max Ramirez is not 5'11". But he's impressive.
Los Angeles outfielder Scott Van Slyke hit a ball real far.
Biggest disappointment of the day: Learning that if we'd arrived a day earlier, we would have seen Blake Beavan, Kasey Kiker, Fabio Castillo, and Neil Ramirez all pitch in a game against Seattle .
Biggest surprise of the day: Jorge Quintero. Absolutely overmatched a couple hitters.
Pina moves like a catcher is supposed to. If he starts to hit, watch out.
Advice that you didn't ask for: Never, ever use City Shuttle or Executive Cab in Dallas . Ever.
More advice: If you're a boxer from Garland and have a big fight coming up in Arizona, finish your training in the city where the fight is going to be. Because if you fast for four straight days just before the fight in order to make weight, and then get on a plane to Phoenix and nearly pass out on the first leg of the flight, airline officials are probably going to make you get off the plane (along with your entourage) at the stopover. So, you know, eat. Or at least get to Phoenix before you start to starve yourself.
Bravo, Kenny Lofton.
I didn't really read this morning that Colorado is planning to start Mark Redman in Game 4 against Philadelphia, did I? Mark Redman, who posted an 11.86 ERA in seven Rockies appearances after throwing up a 5.34 ERA in nine Oklahoma starts?
The Rockies have voted to give a playoff share to Mandy Coolbaugh, the widow of Mike Coolbaugh, the AA Tulsa coach who was killed when struck in the head by a line drive a few months ago. Very cool.
At the end of the Rangers' Instructional League win yesterday, there were no reporters waiting to interview the star of the game, no victory song blaring over the P.A system, no P.A. system (for that matter), and no fans cheering the result.
But there was that familiar procession on the infield, with the Rangers' defensive nine striding in toward the dugout, exchanging daps with their teammates who had poured out of the dugout (which wasn't dug out at all, but instead a bench separated from the field by a chain-link fence), everyone smiling and chattering and celebrating a win.
The stakes weren't nearly the same as they would be a few hours later and 15 miles to the southeast, but one of the things they instruct in Fall Instructional League is how little things matter, how hitting behind the runner and laying off the pitcher's pitch and throwing to the right base can all help lead to a win. Teaching young players how to contribute to winning teams undoubtedly includes mechanical adjustments and work on technique, but it's also about doing the little things that don't show up in the box score and understanding why they are so important.
There will be plenty of days when Engel Beltre dominates the box score, but one of the things that could make him great is that, even on days that he doesn't, he can nonetheless absolutely steal the show.
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