August 15, 2014 at 12:23 pm

Ian Kinsler's defense has been clutch for Tigers this season

Detroit — There is a subtle, almost unseen choreography in baseball between the pitcher, catcher and middle infielders. The catcher calls for a pitch and a location, the shortstop and second baseman wordlessly communicate that information to each other and when everything is in sync — well, it can be a beautiful defensive dance.

Pitcher Max Scherzer, catcher Alex Avila and second baseman Ian Kinsler staged a bravura performance Thursday afternoon against the Pirates, and at the final curtain call, it was Kinsler who got the bouquets.

“Kinsler has had a Gold Glove season at second base for us,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “I have been pleasantly surprised at how good he’s been defensively.”

In a game that Scherzer dominated with 14 strikeouts, Kinsler managed to make three terrific, wide-ranging plays in the hole between first and second. One, against Starling Marte, saved a run in the fourth inning when the game was still scoreless. Another, against Pedro Alvarez, ended the game after the Pirates had scored two runs in the ninth.

And that was just Thursday; Kinsler has been making spectacular plays look routine all season.

“Don’t get me wrong, Omar (Infante, Tigers second baseman the previous two seasons) was a great second baseman; I am not saying anything against Omar,” Scherzer said. “But what Ian can do with his range is so special. He plays so hard and he’s so prepared in the thinking of what a hitter is going to do against me. He anticipates the ball being in the hole or up the middle and he gets such great reads and jumps on the ball.”

This is the choreography at work. Kinsler can’t anticipate where the ball is going to be hit without Scherzer putting his pitches in the pre-determined location. That is the synchronicity of the dance. Like on the pitch to right-hand hitting Marte — an off-speed pitch away — Kinsler knew the odds were he’d hit the ball to the opposite field and he was able to get a jump on a ball headed to right field.

“It’s easy when a guy is commanding the ball like Max is,” Kinsler said. “He is able to pretty much throw the ball where he wants, so it’s easy to anticipate and understand what hitters might do with certain pitches.”

The Pirates, with lesser-experienced second baseman Michael Martinez, offered a stark defensive contrast to Kinsler’s performance. With two out and two on in the eighth inning, and the Tigers leading 2-0, J.D. Martinez hit a ball into the hole between first and second — the same hole Kinsler had been closing up all game.

Michael Martinez showed great range in fielding the ball, but he rushed and threw wildly, opening the gates for the clinching three-run rally.

“Guys like Ian have a very good sense of the speed of the game moving around them,” Ausmus said. “That’s something that young players don’t have when they first come up.”

Kinsler just shrugged off that compliment.

“I better, it’s my ninth year,” he said. “If I don’t have an idea of timing there yet I probably never will. It takes time and making a lot of plays over and over again to understand how to control yourself and how much time you have.”

Ausmus suggested Kinsler’s decision to lose 15 pounds last offseason may have helped give Kinsler some extra range.

“I don’t know,” Kinsler said. “I’ve always had range. It’s just a better understanding of the position and being able to turn those balls into outs.”

Nobody appreciates Kinsler’s impact on the Tigers’ defense more than the pitching staff.

“He’s awesome,” Scherzer said. “He’s been doing unbelievable stuff all year. He’s been so consistent defensively. When you have a player like that, he really impacts the game in so many different ways.”

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com
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Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler made three key defensive plays in Thursday's win over the Pirates. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News