PEORIA, Ariz. — Adrian Beltre loves to charge a slow roller up the third-base line, fling the ball to first and watch the incredulous look on the baserunner’s face when he realizes he’s been thrown out.
It’s the play Beltre loves most.
Unless you count any ball that doesn’t hit him in the crotch.
The Seattle Mariners’ third baseman has long been considered one of the best defensive players at his position, and last year he was recognized for it with an American League Gold Glove.
He also may deserve a gold statue from guys everywhere not only for the skill he brings to the position, but also for what he doesn’t.
Beltre doesn’t wear a protective cup.
“I tried when I signed, but I didn’t feel comfortable at all,” he said. “I couldn’t run, I couldn’t move.”
Andy Taylor was the sheriff without a gun. The Flying Wallendas didn’t use a net. And now this.
But before anybody squirms too much, Beltre says he’s never taken a direct hit. He credits his success to quick feet, decent hands and the willingness to put his body — well, most of it — in the line of any hard-hit ball without fear.
“I probably won’t be one of the most mechanically sound third basemen,” he said. “When the ball is hit hard to me, my focus is to keep it in front of me. If I do that I know I’ll have a chance to get him out.”
Beltre grew up playing on rough infields in the Dominican Republic and says that could be why he’s so willing to hang in there.
“Anything in the big leagues is easier than that,” he said.
He says Gary Sheffield hits the ball harder than anyone he has faced, although Craig Biggio gave him fits in the National League because he would drop a bunt in one at-bat, then pull the ball hard the next.”
“Biggio hit a lot of balls hard that always seemed to get to me on the in-between hop,” Beltre said.
He doesn’t always get a good look at a ball coming his way — sometimes there’s a bright shirt in the background or a glare — and all Beltre can do then is hope to knock it down.
“Sometimes you know it’s in the area, and all you can do is try to block it,” he said.
How in the world does he keep from flinching?
“That’s my job. If it’s hit at you, just react to it and keep it in front,” Beltre said. “I haven’t had anybody connect yet. I’ve been hit on the chin, but not with a line drive and not with anything major. I hope I’ll be able to have my face when I retire, have all my teeth.”
None of Beltre’s plays was better than what he pulled off last year in Toronto, where he made a headlong dive behind the bag to snag a hard-hit ball by Alex Rios. Beltre, several feet into foul territory, made the long throw to first base while sitting on the turf. The throw beat Rios, although umpire Rick Reed ruled him safe.
“It’s the best play I’ve ever seen by a third baseman,” Mariners manager John McLaren said.
Beltre said he’s never seen a replay of that one, nor is he surprised that he’s able to make difficult plays.
“I’m not surprised because I’m supposed to make those plays,” he said. “But I’m grateful that I’m able to make those plays. I think it helps me that I’m not afraid to make an error. Sometimes I might make a stupid error because I don’t just hold the ball. I’d rather make an error than be holding the ball in my hand when I’ve got a chance to get the guy out.”
It’s not the smash down the line or the one-hopper off his chest that Beltre believes he handles the best. He loves charging the bunts and slow rollers, grabbing the ball with his bare hand and making a strong throw to first.
“Those are my favorites,” he said. “I love when a guy bunts on me. For some reason, it’s my favorite play.”
McLaren calls it Beltre’s signature play.
“You can tell he has worked on that play a lot,” McLaren said. “I think in his mind, there isn’t a play he can’t make.”
Beltre showed up at spring training two weeks ago and immediately jumped into a workout regimen that included hundreds of ground balls hit to him.
During the Mariners’ 11/2 hours on the field at the annual Peoria Stadium FanFest last weekend, minor league coordinator Pedro Grifol hit three buckets full of balls to Beltre. Each bucket contained 120 balls, and by the end of the workout Grifol seemed more fatigued than Beltre.
“I know he can’t work any harder, but he is,” McLaren said. “You can tell that he is so confident out there. You can tell he’s proud. He has worked extremely hard to get where he is right now and I can tell he doesn’t want to give that Gold Glove title up to anybody.
“He’s the best third baseman that I can remember ever seeing.”
Read Kirby Arnold’s blog on the Mariners at www.heraldnet.com