September 11, 2008

Utility is tough, Lopez still the right Redbird

Felipe Lopez has taken quite a bit of heat for his pair of miscues in last night's ball game, but the knock on the recently acquired former All-Star is a bit rough considering the situation.

Of course, there are no excuses for a brain blowout on a force play that found Lopez trying to tag a base runner instead. Lopez himself admits to all that, and that the goof-up, plus his throwing error, cost his team.

But oh how quickly folks forget that just the this past Sunday, Lopez dove on a ball down the third base line off the bat of Marlins' leadoff hitter Hanley Ramirez to start off the game with a putout for Adam Wainwright and his team instead of a double with no one out in the first inning.

Tit for tat, last night's errors were undoubtedly part of what Cards' manager Tony La Russa called "ugly" in his post-game interview, without pointing any specific fingers, you might say. No big deal. Lopez knows it. We move on.

Cardinal Nation should consider this, however. Lopez has started, substituted, pinched-into games, covered outfield positions, infield positions, and if he's around another week so, may join Aaron Miles as a utility man who has pitched.

Keep in mind that last night's lineup had bats in mind more so than defense. La Russa could have played Josh Phelps at third and Nick Stavinoha in left field. Phelps, after all, is an infielder; right side, but still, an infielder. Phelps, to our knowledge, had little or no outfield experience to that point. And indeed (and also, no fault of Phelps), there were a couple of balls Phelps played conservatively that a regular outfielder would've handled much more aggressively, and that, due to experience alone.

Or ... Aaron Miles could've played at third base. He's done so before, and with Adam Kennedy, surprisingly starting at second base with a left-handed pitcher on the hill, would've allowed Lopez to take his two or three games more of outfield experience than Phelps into left field.

But there certainly isn't any faulting La Russa on finding a way to keep Lopez's bat in the lineup, as the man has performed well since becoming a Redbird.

If that's La Russa's strategy, so be it. There's no denying he favors hitters over defenders, and maybe that's because he has gotten used to Rick Ankiel (in healthier times) roaming center field, and has enjoyed infield corners with gloves that if aren't destined to go gold this season, are certainly line with the stuff.

That being said, you have to concede that La Russa has to find some way to get every bit of offense on that field as possible, considering how much difficulty the Cardinals have had at the plate this year. Hence, Lopez is in the game, and in a variety of positions, each one with there own set of skills and strategies.

Keep in mind that yesterday's errors were one each of the position knowledge and skills oriented. In other words, mental and physical. A force play is obvious to most of us, but on that field, Lopez has to pre-think, so to speak, all the possibilities of the play about to occur. He isn't just out there reacting to whatever happens, although that sometimes is what occurs.

Lopez had to consider (before the pitch is thrown), things like:
  • who is batting?
  • where does he usually hit?
  • what pitch is being thrown, as this can affect the "where" part?
  • is the turf fast today?
  • where do I go on a single to left?
  • where do I go on single to center?
  • where do I go on single to right?
  • what's my duties on an extra basehit? to left? to center? to right? into the alleys?
  • is this a bunt situation?
  • what is my coverage on this bunt? (often called by the catcher, but there is a standard bunt defense that the Cardinals were probably employing just because there was a "new man on the job"
  • what is my read on a batted ball as far as direction? speed of ball?
  • what is my read on a bunted ball? do I charge or retreat?
  • how many outs? (yes, reader, a simple thing, and did you even consider that yet? Ah-ha!)
  • an oh, there is so much more....

...and as a third baseman (or any other position player), you have to consider tons of factors like these between every pitch, and then some.

So should Lopez be crucified for the mental mistake on the force play? Probably not, although if he hung from one arm for a while, that would surely be enough for him to burn that experience into his thinking as a third baseman.

But wait a minute. Today, he might be playing left field again, and what are his duties on this particular pitch, game situation, according to the batter at the plate, and his own pitcher on the mound, and what pitch is he throwing, and how is the outfielder next to me playing, and what do I do on a ball into the gap, and ...

Throwing error, mental error, okay. Get over it, folks. All Lopez needs to do is think about correction, practice skills for correction, and play wherever La Russa points tomorrow.

photos by Barbara Moore