Henning: Healthy Jose Iglesias has plenty of zip

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla — A slight line separates Jose Iglesias, the shortstop, from Jose Iglesias in any other facet of his life.

On a baseball diamond, he whirls and wheels, dances and sashays, glides and slides from one side of an infield to another. In a Grapefruit League game the other day, he dove to the turf, gloved and flipped to a covering infielder a high chopper that had been whacked between Marchant Stadium's mound and first base.

Don't ask how he got there. It was as if he had been photoshopped.

Off the field? Same guy.

Late on Thursday afternoon, after the Tigers had popped the Orioles, 6-4, Iglesias was moving at light-speed within the clubhouse. He was wearing orange socks and lime baseball shoes and flamboyance was hardly confined to his wardrobe.

One moment, he was playing ping-pong as the team's vogue new dressing-room pastime carried on. After a break that allowed Hernan Perez a showdown with Anthony Gose, Iglesias took a chair a few feet from mid-table. He might as well have had a third paddle he was so involved in the Gose-Perez playoff.

This, you might deduce, is one buoyant 25-year-old man.

This, you might also guess, is one relieved big-league shortstop.

A year ago he was dealing with a diagnosis that blindsided him and the Tigers. Stress fractures in each leg. A recovery, originally pegged at 4-6 months, became season-long. The Tigers had lost for an entire year a magician whose fielding skills bordered on hocus-pocus.

But this spring — triumph.

Reveling in recovery

Iglesias has had no pain, no setbacks, and no recurrences. He has been playing steadily. The Tigers have a lousy Grapefruit League record (9-16-2) but have otherwise won the spring, all because Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Bruce Rondon — and Iglesias — have sprung back from injuries that had made their spring camps nervous in terms of how fast and completely all would recover.

"I'm not surprised, I'm happy about it," Iglesias said as he shifted from the ping-pong match to his locker, ahead of a shower and an evening with his wife and young son. "That's it. I'm happy about it."

Trusting doctors is normally sound advice when athletes and injuries become an exercise in anxiety. For everyone.

Iglesias is a reminder that docs tend to know best. Every time he was evaluated in Colorado, by one of the best orthopedic surgeons in the world, Thomas Clanton, Iglesias was said to be on target. He was expected to heal. Fully.

And indeed here he is in Florida, playing gracefully, with a kind of brio that speaks to his spirit as well as his to his body's well-being.

The Tigers have in Iglesias a cornerstone defender. He is the infield's most important player. He covers the most ground, handles the greatest percentage of ground balls, and is the chief steward on double-play transactions.

Detroit gave up a fine young outfielder, Avisail Garcia, 20 months ago in snaring Iglesias from the Red Sox as part of a three-way swap with the White Sox. He was seen as a potential fixture when the Tigers looked at their long-term team.

His defense is so dazzling, his hands so quick, that Tigers Nation will need to reacquaint itself with Iglesias' ways. He was in Detroit for only 10 weeks at the end of 2013 and the fans' experience with him was fleeting.

Now they can appreciate a native Cuban whose energy and hands that move at the speed of a camera shutter have brought a new gear to manager Brad Ausmus' infield.

Hitting uncertain

His right-handed bat is another matter. At least it is to certain fans who fear Iglesias is an eternal No. 9 hitter and a drag on the Tigers lineup.

But where do numbers support ideas Iglesias is a dead duck?

He has played in 144 big-league games. He has a .274 batting average. He has been doing less than little in Florida, which is plain enough in his .086 batting average. But process these numbers advisedly. He has struck out only three times in 35 at-bats.

Ausmus snorts at thoughts Iglesias won't hit. The skipper loves that "simple stroke" and how a shortstop's offense should stay steady. It's a matter of past seasons (he batted .303 in 109 games for the Red Sox and Tigers in 2013), bat speed, and those "simple" mechanics Iglesias favors.

Fan jurors are still deliberating. During a lunch-table quiz Thursday, a couple of studious Tigers followers suggested Iglesias might hit .225 in 2013.

This was not a forecast Iglesias buys.

"If hitting lefty, yeah," he said, deadpan, cracking up his questioner.

When you're feeling as good as Iglesias is in 2015, humor comes easily. As easily as he turns groundballs into seamless weaves that leave you wondering how he does it.

And then you remind yourself. He does it fundamentally on those legs. Those legs that a year ago were fractured. Those legs that today are intact and reassuring, and at the heart of a man's baseball bliss.