August 16, 2013 at 1:37 am

Lynn Henning

Jose Iglesias making big impact for Tigers at shortstop

Detroit — Nothing within Thursday’s box score from Comerica Park would have revealed what happened at shortstop for the Tigers in their 4-1 knockoff of the Royals.

Even if you were keeping score, etching those “6” digits on a sheet filled with inning-by-inning squares, the sub-story was veiled. You had to make small notations beyond the mental photographs Jose Iglesias engraved on minds and memories during a cool August evening.

The sequence of score sheet markings went something like this:

First inning: The first two Royals batters reach base against Tigers starter Anibal Sanchez. Billy Butler then slaps a hard ground ball to short that Iglesias, in one camera-shutter moment, fields and whips to Omar Infante at second as the first half of a double play that keeps an inning under control.

Second inning: Jarrod Dyson swats a bounding ball that Iglesias snares. His head snaps to the left, making sure Emilio Bonifacio, the runner at second, is holding tight.

Iglesias whip-cracks a throw to Prince Fielder at first, nailing Dyson.

Fourth inning: Leadoff ground ball from Salvador Perez that Iglesias handles neatly to wash away the inning’s leadoff batter. Not a Gold Glove play. But a solid play, a play pitchers doubly appreciate for the utter absence of anxiety that comes when anything is hit Iglesias’ way.

Sixth inning: Perez hits a chopper toward short that will take its time clearing the infield grass. Iglesias sprints in, swoops up the ball, and delivers another of his rifle-shot throws to Fielder at first. Perez is gone.

After a follow-up strikeout, the Royals are headed back onto the field, trailing, 4-1.

Seventh inning: With one out, Alcides Escobar spanks a grounder at Iglesias. He grabs it, bobbles it for a millisecond, then, in about the same blink-of-an-eye time lapse, Iglesias’ throw is in Fielder’s glove. Still 4-1, Tigers.

Ninth inning: Perez leads off against closer Joaquin Benoit. He hits another grass-hugging grounder that Iglesias must charge. The ball is scooped, and the ball — if you’re fascinated by lightning strikes, you’ll love Iglesias’ throws — again explodes into Fielder’s glove for the second out of a 1-2-3 ninth that makes the Tigers winners in a big series opener.

Offense lacking

What the Tigers have seen in the two weeks since Iglesias arrived is a marvelously incomplete player.

He is 23. He is not going to boost Detroit’s offense in any appreciable way until he gets older and stronger with the bat. Even then, the bat will be his backseat skill.

It’s Iglesias’ glove that can change games. It’s his ability to track down ground balls, and to make throws as dazzling as the range he displays in grabbing those grounders, that sets him apart from the shortstop crowd and brings him, even at this point, to the level of elite.

Iglesias made a difference in Thursday’s game. To what extent is difficult to say on a night Sanchez was strong deep into the game and when Tigers hitters at least did their part.

But what sent the Tigers’ spirits soaring two weeks ago when they announced their trade-deadline deal for Iglesias was the reality of how much their team had changed.

Detroit, if it makes the postseason, will have a brand of defender as special as the collective luster of its starting pitching.

It will have a fielder and an arm that can blow up would-be rallies that otherwise can sabotage that good starting pitching, as easily could have been the case Thursday.

This, from a man who only last week, after Jhonny Peralta was suspended, was able to return to his natural locale, shortstop, after having played third this season for the Red Sox and then for the Tigers during Miguel Cabrera’s absence.

'That's my position'

“That’s big,” Iglesias said after the game, nodding — and smiling. “That’s my position.”

His manager, Jim Leyland, understands what he has: an incredible weapon that until Iglesias showed up was more of a Tigers fantasy.

“Very athletic, very quick,” Leyland said. “Terrific hand-eye coordination and footwork.”

Leyland knows he also has a project in Iglesias. But the bat must get better. The energy must be contained, governed. But those are minor matters. The skill set is astounding.

And at the most demanding position on a baseball field, that skill package is now Detroit’s.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com
Twitter.com/Lynn_Henning

Jose Iglesias got his night at shortstop off to a fine beginning, starting a double play in the first inning. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News