Tigers’ new double-play duo still a work in progress

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Port Charlotte, Fla. — Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias is breaking in a new double-play partner in Dixon Machado, and it’s not as simple as you might think.

“It’s fine,” Iglesias said before the Tigers were beaten by the Rays in Grapefruit League play Sunday. “It’s just, he’s got to adjust to that base. He’s played there before, but playing there every single day at the level we want, we’ve got work to do.”

Tigers second baseman Dixon Machado makes a throw from his knees for the out during a spring-training game last month against the Blue Jays.

For 233 games over the last two years, Iglesias turned double plays at second base with Ian Kinsler. They were as smooth a combination as you could want. They knew each other’s tendencies. They knew where each liked the toss and how firm.

Their synchronicity was beautiful to watch at times. But it took time, countless fungos and game reps to get to that point.

“That’s it,” Iglesias said. “It’s repetition, over and over. It’s spending time with him and watching guys turn double plays. Always being there to help him.”

Machado is a shortstop by trade. In fact, he very likely is the Tigers’ shortstop of the future. It’s no secret the Tigers are willing to listen to trade offers for Iglesias, who will be a free agent after this season.

But Machado’s shortstop mentality is at times in conflict with how you need to play second base.

“Sometimes when he gets a ground ball, it’s like, since he was a shortstop, he charges the ball,” Iglesias explained. “You have extra time on that side and he doesn’t really need to come after it. But I keep my eyes on that and I let him know.

“He’s feeling more comfortable each and every day.”

There was a play earlier this spring, in a game in Sarasota, when his shortstop instincts kicked in. It was a double-play situation. The ball was hit up the middle and snagged by pitcher Joe Jimenez. Machado reacted to the ball hit up the middle and got to the bag the same time shortstop Pete Kozma did.

Jimenez made a perfect throw. Machado and Kozma both reached for it, then pulled their gloves back. The ball went into center field.

“I got confused with Pete because as a shortstop; I am used to being in charge,” Machado said. “Now, playing second base, he is in charge.”

Aggressively charging ground balls, another shortstop’s instinct that’s hard to quit.

“Now you’ve got to stay back a little bit and wait for the ball,” Machado said, especially when a double-play is in order. “It’s part of the process. At shortstop, you are always going forward. At second base you can wait a little longer. I am adjusting. When we get into the season, we’re going to be really good.”

Iglesias and coach Ramon Santiago, who works tirelessly with the middle infielders, agree with that.

Tigers first-base coach Ramon Santiago hits sharp ground balls to shortstop Jose Iglesias, who is working with a new double-play partner in second baseman Dixon Machado (not pictured).

“He’ll be there,” Iglesias said. “He’ll be ready. We just got some work to do.”

Santiago, who played 505 five games at shortstop and 341 at second base in his 13 big-league seasons, said with spring training winding down and the roster thinning out, he can spend more time with Iglesias and Machado, fine-tuning their chemistry around second base.

“The pivot is the hard part,” he said. “A ground ball is a ground ball regardless of what side you are on, but adjusting to the double play, that’s the hard part.”

Think about it. It’s a completely different play for a second baseman than a shortstop. The shortstop has everything right in front of him. He can see the runners. When he takes the throw, he’s coming across the base with his momentum going toward first base.

The second baseman, when he’s making the pivot, has the runners at his back. Often he has to stop and adjust his body to make the throw to first.

“That’s the part you can’t really practice at full speed,” Machado said. “In a game, you’ve got guys running to you and you’ve got to throw it quick. From second base, you’ve got to get to the base and just wait for the ball.

“That’s the hardest part because you’re not looking at the base. Before you were looking at everything. Now it’s like you don’t know.”

Machado had two double-play chances Sunday. One was on a throw from third baseman Niko Goodrum. The throw was belt-high and Machado was at the bag in time. But he hesitated slightly on the transfer and didn’t make the throw to first. He was visibly frustrated he didn’t make that turn.

The second chance was on a ball hit up the middle. Machado’s foot-work got tangled and the ball caromed off his knee.

Santiago has been imploring Machado to use two hands at the base and to make a quick transfer between glove and throwing hand, with the ball barely hitting the glove.

“Two hands is key,” he said. “I drill them to use two hands. Make sure you don’t drop the ball — you’ve got to get the first out for sure — but be quick.”

It’s an adjustment for Iglesias, too. He knew all of Kinsler’s preferences and idiosyncrasies. He’s having to learn Machado’s.

“When I switched from Dustin Pedroia (in Boston) to Kinsler, it was an easy transition,” Iglesias said. “It’s a little different with Machado. Not much, but Dixon is a new guy. He’s got great hands and great instincts. But we’ve got to work.

“We’ve got work to do.”

That’s the encouraging aspect to this budding partnership. Both players are gym rats. Putting in the work won’t be a problem.

“Dixon comes to me all the time, ‘Let’s do some more. Let’s work on this some more,’ ” Santiago said. “He’s been very open to learning.

“Dixon is going to be good because he’s got a great attitude and that’s the best thing you can have.

“But it’s an adjustment for both. They’ve got to get on the same page. I was just talking to Jose about this. He’s got to get with Machado and ask where he likes the ball. Do you want it toward the back, in front, in the middle? Kinsler liked the ball more toward the back. When you are a middle infielder, you have to communicate with each other all the time.”

It may take more than one spring to build perfect harmony. But it’s been coming together at a much faster pace lately.

“I feel really good about it,” Machado said. “But with more time that we play together in games, it’s just going to get better and better. I feel like it’s going fine.”