Detroit — Jose Iglesias made an impression on multiple fronts Friday, one of which the Tigers care a great deal about. The other pluses — his calm, his smarts, his Motown adaptability — are but boss-pleasing bonuses as a new infielder and soon-to-be starting shortstop drops anchor in Detroit.
Iglesias, almost 72 hours after the Tigers got him in a theatrical three-team trade, rapped a run-scoring hit in his first game for the Tigers, who beat the White Sox, 2-1, in a Comerica Park contest so fast-paced it almost outraced a sunset’s final moments.
Iglesias nearly hit a home run, as well, although neither the drive to the left-field warning track in the seventh, nor the flare single in the fourth that scored Detroit’s first run, outshined his trademark talent, which is playing defense.
“A very bright guy, a very instinctive guy,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland was saying after the Tigers had pushed their record to 62-45 and gained a game on the Indians in the Central Division sweepstakes.
“He knew in that last inning that he had to look for the bunt. But he knew that you don’t move right in (alerting the batter). He’s pretty instinctive.”
Iglesias played third base Friday when Miguel Cabrera’s stubborn hip and abdominal strain re-tightened during batting practice. It sent Leyland scurrying for his lineup card and a transfer of Iglesias from second base to third base.
He had been Leyland’s choice to play second because of the shortstop pileup and because Hernan Perez had been cleared from the roster to make room for the new guy.
Third base isn’t frontier turf for Iglesias. He had been playing third for the Red Sox for most of 2013. But he must wonder why the path toward his natural position, shortstop, has been so filled with curves and roadblocks. Friday was simply another night of orange cones.
“I was ready to play,” said Iglesias, shrugging at suggestions someone always seems to be parked in his space at short.
Before the game, he had handled the same question as if he were a visiting foreign diplomat.
“It’s my natural position,” said Iglesias, 23, whom Leyland had said “looks like he’s 15” because of his paper-boy mien. “But as long as I’m in the lineup, it doesn’t matter where.”
Defense shows immediately
His reputation as a defensive wizard was pretty much affirmed in the third when, with a man on first and two out, Alexei Ramirez swatted a two-hop shot to Iglesias. The relay from Iglesias to second base was turned so quickly and so seamlessly it appeared the ball all but deflected from Iglesias to Santiago, who made it to the bag just in time.
“I was afraid Santiago wouldn’t be there,” said Leyland, marveling at the exchange and its speed.
Iglesias had another assist in the fourth, three innings before a man listed liberally as 5-foot-11 — he is closer to 5-9 — and 183 pounds pounded a Hector Santiago pitch deep onto the warning track in left. The Tigers saw enough Friday to appreciate that Iglesias, as he matures, could become the helpful hitter their scouts envision.
Even before he saw a single pitch Friday, against the White Sox, or handled a ground ball, Iglesias began stoking a romance with Motown’s baseball camp.
“I don’t know about Detroit,” he said, finishing a 15-minute introductory interview, “but I will learn about Detroit from now on.”
It was a remark simple in construction, amusingly so, but genuine in expression. Iglesias is eight years removed from Cuba and a daring defection that put him on path to the big leagues. The Tigers had tried to sign him when he was a teenager, after he had fled the Cuban national junior team during a stop in Canada. But they lost when the Red Sox forked over $14 million.
Making his place
They won a rematch Tuesday when Iglesias became Tigers property courtesy of front-office chief Dave Dombrowski’s part in a deal that might have delivered to Detroit a long-haul shortstop.
“A different style of player,” Leyland said. “I’ll have to adjust to his style of play a little bit. I’m really looking forward to watching this kid play.
“Today,” Leyland said, shaking his head at the kid he said looked more like a teenager, “was one of the first days when I did feel pretty old.”
Iglesias is adopting Detroit in these early hours, which has involved, for starters, new digs as he settles into a room at the Doubletree Hotel on Lafayette Boulevard. His skill with English is surprising, and even fascinating. Iglesias made it a goal to command English inside of a year, and pulled it off with help from an American roommate during his days at the Double A Red Sox stop in Portland, Maine, in 2010.
“It was really tough in the beginning,” he said. “It’s still not perfect.”
He is deft enough, linguistically, to easily handle those live post-game interviews on FSD. And those moments could happen with some regularity, more, perhaps, because of his glove and arm than his bat, at least in the early going.
“I had a conversation with a general manager last night,” Leyland said. “I won’t tell you who. But he said their people absolutely loved him.”
His new town and team aren’t holding back on the hugs. Iglesias came from one baseball town, Boston, to another as August and a pennant race began their annual mating dance. Opening act on Detroit’s stage was Friday. Scouts expect the Iglesias show to be a long-runner.