Midway through a game remarkable only for the wonderful weather in which it was played on Sunday, Seattle Mariners shortstop Brendan Ryan put his glove in position to field a grounder hit off the bat of speedy Minnesota Twins leadoff man Denard Span.
Except Ryan didn’t use his glove. He grabbed the ball with his bare hand, the right hand, and fired a throw to first that got there well before Span did.
While Ryan was pleased to execute the play that retired the side in the top of the fifth, he wasn’t so pleased to see Span beaten by two steps. Bare-hand stops that turn infield hits into outs are worthy of applause, but bare-hand stops on routine ground balls will get a player branded as a hot dog – and Ryan already has enough on his plate to afford anything associated with a hot dog.
So why not just use the glove?
“I’ve played against that guy for a long time, at every single level, and I know how well he can run,” Ryan said of Span. “I wanted to get rid of it as quickly as I could.
“But when the throw beats him by two steps,” he added with a smile, “it looks pretty unnecessary.”
Welcome to the world of Brendan Ryan, where even routine grounders aren’t routine.
Inside a clubhouse where the Mariners’ 5-2 victory was acknowledged in a key of low Sunday, Ryan’s was the lone voice booming over the hip-hop music. On a team largely comprised of second and third-year players in their mid-20s, Ryan is the 30-year old veteran who talks the talk. On a team without much of a personality, Ryan has more personality than a .153 hitter is supposed to own.
You can’t conclude an interview of Ryan without finding him charming and likeable, but charming and likeable are not substitutes for hits.
Ryan’s defense is spectacular (whether he chooses to use his glove or not), and manager Eric Wedge realizes the run-saving impact a stellar shortstop can have on a pitching staff.
An average Brendan Ryan season – such as the one he had last year, when he finished at .248, with 19 doubles and three triples – gives the Mariners a better-than-average player at the most important defensive position besides catcher. But he has to offer something at the plate.
He has to contribute more than two hits a week.
When the benching of leadoff hitter Chone Figgins triggered a lineup overhaul last Friday, manager Eric Wedge said he’d consider batting Ryan second, statistics be damned. Sure enough, Ryan hit second on Saturday and drove in a run on a sacrifice fly. He was back there Sunday and helped feed a two-run rally in the first inning with a single.
Later, after Dustin Ackley lined a one-out triple into the left-center field gap, Ryan fouled out to right field on a ball hit deep enough to score Ackley.
A single and a pair of sac flies are not evidence the lineup change has rescued Ryan from his offensive funk, but for a hitter who began the weekend on the south side of .150, the Twins series was productive.
“Productive? I don’t know about that,” Ryan said. “It’s more like I had a little good fortune. At least I had some competitive at-bats.”
During the most trying spring of a nine-year professional career, Ryan has weathered his slump with a composure that impresses Wedge and might surprise Ryan’s previous manager, former St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.
“If I had this season in 2010, I would’ve had my head down,” said Ryan, who finished at .292 during a breakthrough 2009 season in St. Louis. His hopes were high and his dreams were big for 2010. He hit .223 and, by all accounts, behaved like somebody who needed to mature.
“I wasn’t just disappointed in myself,” he said. “I thought I was letting the team down, too. But I’ve learned that the harder you try, the harder it gets. You can’t force good things. You can’t just make or produce a hit.”
Two years older and substantially wiser, Ryan trusts the offensive numbers will improve as long as he resists the temptation to try to pull the ball. He’s a spray hitter built to take advantage of the entire field and, if nothing else, the situational opportunities of batting second should discourage Ryan from over-swinging.
Meanwhile, second-year third baseman Kyle Seager is getting both an education and a thrill watching one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball.
“What’s it like,” Seager was asked, “to play next to Brendan Ryan?”
Seager pondered the question by asking it himself.
“What’s it like to play next to Brendan Ryan?” he said. “It’s not dull, that’s for sure.”John.email@example.com