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Rays duo working out their keystone kinks
Julio Lugo, Jorge Cantu aim to pick up each other's nuances on defense.
By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published March 29, 2005
ST. PETERSBURG - Devil Rays shortstop Julio Lugo said there will be a moment when he knows he and second baseman Jorge Cantu have reached an infielder's version of nirvana.
It may be as dramatic as completing a game-ending double play or as subtle as Cantu flipping the ball to Lugo for a forceout at second.
Either way, it will mean they know where they stand - and how they prefer to receive throws, move their feet around second base and position themselves on every pitch.
It is crucial choreography between players who interact more than any on the field except pitchers and catchers. It will be interesting to watch Lugo and Cantu, one of baseball's newest keystone combinations, try to master the steps.
"Sometimes you get it real quick. Sometimes it takes a little while," Lugo said after Monday's batting practice at Tropicana Field. "We're still learning each other, but we're really close."
"We have to communicate, be aware of situations every time and for every batter," Cantu said. "By doing that, we're not going to make any mistakes."
And mistakes are so easy to make through the middle infield, a well-trod crossroad of sliding opponents, hard-hit balls, secret signals and defensive situations in which only one player is needed to cover second base but two are available.
It helps that Lugo, 29, and Cantu, 23, played together last season. Lugo was Tampa Bay's regular shortstop and Cantu played 33 of 50 games in his rookie season at second.
Cantu said he and Lugo speak frequently about positioning and plays from the previous day's game, especially those in which mistakes were made. The real work, though, occurs on the field.
"They have to have a feel for what each one is doing," infielders coach Tom Foley said. "It's a matter of taking a lot of ground balls, working together and spending a lot of time together. I don't see any problems. They know what they're doing."
It is crucial they know what glove position the other prefers to catch throws for an easy transfer to a throwing hand.
It is essential they are in synch when reading the catcher's signs to the pitcher so they can position themselves where balls are likely to be hit.
And it is paramount they know whose job it is to cover second base with a runner at first.
For instance, if a right-handed batter, because of his hitting tendencies and pitch location, is more likely to pull the ball, Cantu is responsible for covering second. If a right-hander is thrown a pitch more likely hit to the opposite field, Lugo covers.
"Same thing left-handed," Cantu said. "A fastball away to a left-handed hitter and he's a slap hitter, I'm going to have to take care of the base because he can slap the ball to the opposite field."
The players said communication is key, with much of it done through flashed, hidden signals. Still, Rays senior adviser Don Zimmer doesn't buy the idea a shortstop and second baseman have to have a symbiotic relationship.
"I think it's overrated," said Zimmer, a 1961 All-Star as a Cubs second baseman. "Naturally, it would be nice to work with the same second baseman or shortstop for five years. But what's the big deal if a new second baseman comes in?
"I go out there for two days and catch double plays, throw the ball where he likes it the best. If I see it for two days, I'm not going to forget it."
But Cantu said the more he and Lugo have invested in each other, the better.
"You have to be partners, teammates and friends," he said. "We hang out and talk, and if there's something wrong on the field, we try to make it right the next day."
How will they know when they've figured it out?
"When they hit a ground ball and he flips it to me instead of throwing it at the bag," Lugo said. "That's when you know, when everything runs smooth."