CLEARWATER, Fla. - The problem with quantifying fielding performance in baseball was illustrated in the top of the second inning Thursday afternoon. Twins leftfielder Wilkin Ramirez appeared destined for extra bases when he led off the frame with a sharp line drive to the gap in left-centerfield, but a sprinting Domonic Brown forced him to put on the brakes by sticking out his long right arm and cutting off the ball before it had a chance to bounce to the wall.
Later in the inning, with two outs and runners on first and second, Chase Utley nearly made a leaping stab of a sharp liner by Pedro Florimon, knocking the ball to the infield dirt and forcing Ramirez to hold up at third. With the bases loaded, Cliff Lee struck out Aaron Hicks to escape the inning unscathed.
On the stat sheet, neither Brown nor Utley was credited with anything other than a fielded ball in play. There was no putout, no assist, nothing that would ever be reflected in fielding percentage. But Brown's play prevented a leadoff man from reaching scoring position, and Utley's prevented a baserunner from scoring.
The second-inning sequence is one of the big reasons why the optimism emanating from the Phillies' clubhouse has swelled steadily since the start of February. Eight games into the most significant springtime test of his knees, Utley's body is responding well enough to enable him to make the kind of leaping plays that can save the team runs.
And Brown has seized the opportunity afforded to him during the first 3 weeks of the Grapefruit League schedule, hitting tape-measure home runs, yes, but also playing steady defense in both left- and rightfield.
In Thursday's 10-6 loss to the Twins, Brown played leftfield, where the Phillies plan to use him once Delmon Young returns. On Friday, he is in the lineup in rightfield, his natural position, and one he could be asked to play until Young is activated from the disabled list.
"It really doesn't matter at all," Brown said. "I'm kind of glad that I'm playing both of them . . . I'm just out there having fun, trying to get better reads and jumps on balls."
Brown was hampered by a knee injury all last season. It started with his right knee, then progressed to his left because of the mechanical adjustments his body made to deal with the original condition. A healthy and effective Brown would be a huge bonus for a team that never appeared to gel defensively because of the constant shuffling at numerous key positions.
You don't need statistics to know that the Phillies' defense was a shell of its usual self in 2012, but we'll throw some at you anyway. In 2012, they allowed 67 batters to reach on error, their most since 1996, when they allowed 74. That helped cost Phillies pitchers 62 unearned runs, tied for fifth-most in the National League. In 2011, the Phillies had allowed just 44 batters to reach on error, the lowest total in the National League.
"I feel like we could have done a lot better jobs at a lot of things last year, not just defense," Lee said after he allowed two runs on four hits with five strikeouts and one walk in 3 2/3 innings against the Twins. "That was one aspect of the game that we could all do better. It wasn't glaringly obvious, but it is one aspect that we could have done better and it's something that you should always focus on. It's more of just focus and making sure you are in the moment and anticipating the ball as much as anything. You've got to do that on the mound, too. It's not just the position players. It's the pitchers, too. It's everyone. I think we could all do a better job."
Manager Charlie Manuel and his field staff have stressed defense throughout the first 3 weeks of spring training. The Phillies feel they have potential Gold Glovers up the middle with Jimmy Rollins at shortstop, Utley at second base, Ben Revere in centerfield, and Freddy Galvis as utility man. The corners are where the big questions lie. Veteran infielder Michael Young spent most of 2011 and 2012 as a designated hitter for the Rangers, although he played full-time at third base before that. On Thursday he made an impressive backhand and strong throw to second for an inning-ending force play.
"You want guys to make plays," Lee said. "This is the big leagues, and you expect guys to make plays. But when they don't, you have to try to get the ball back and make another pitch and hopefully they make the plays. I think everyone holds each other accountable as far as that goes. It's not like you are mad at him or he did it on purpose, but I think that all of us expect each other to make fundamental, sound plays."
Thursday, they did just that.