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Tigers pitchers put fielding woes behind

Tigers pitchers put fielding woes behind

LAKELAND, Fla. -- It's not the errors. It's the cover-up.

In the wake of the Tigers' World Series record of five errors by pitchers last October, manager Jim Leyland joked that one bright side would be nobody complaining when they have pitchers' fielding practice in Spring Training. Then over the offseason, he said he wouldn't have PFP on the first day of camp, just so players wouldn't tighten up obsessing over it.

He did it anyway. On the first day of official workouts, Leyland sent his pitchers onto the practice fields and hit them ground balls for what might have been the most anticipated round of PFP in modern baseball history. And rather than obsess, his players took their World Series aftermath in good humor.

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"I don't think the team needs to work where I need to work, on throwing the ball to third base," joked Joel Zumaya, rehashing his World Series error. "It feels good to be out there fielding ground balls. It's been the last day of the season since I fielded a ground ball, so it's good to catch a ball, get that new glove broken in and get those evil spirits out of you."

In the end, Leyland decided to stick to the same plans he had last Spring Training rather than delay it. The cover-up would have been bigger than the story. Besides, getting the focus out of the way worked into the theme of Leyland's talk to his pitchers and catchers: Don't dwell anymore on 2006. Think about 2007.

"I thought about it," Leyland said. "But [pitching coach] Chuck [Hernandez] made a good point, that might bring more attention to it. So we're going to do everything normal the whole camp. All the fundamentals and everything will be exactly what we did last year. There's no tricks."

The drills pretty much went like last year, too, minus any complaining. Pitchers split into groups and rotated around the practice fields beyond Joker Marchant Stadium. On one field, two or three players would line up at each base, where a coach would hit them ground balls or hoppers. On another, they'd work on covering first base. On yet another, they'd practice throwing to the base.

Some fielded them cleanly. Some bobbled the ball. Some watched a ball or two go between their legs. Then 42-year-old Kenny Rogers made everyone else look silly.

Showing once again the fielding mentality that has won him the last three American League Gold Glove Awards for pitchers, Rogers tried to snare every ball hit his way. He dove to his left to backhand a wayward line drive in the air.

"I was right behind him [in drills]," Zumaya said. "He stops every single ball. If he doesn't stop it [with his glove], he'll sacrifice his body to stop it. I'm pretty decent, but that guy's a Gold Glover."

Said Nate Robertson: "As good as Kenny is, he hasn't had a behind-the-back [catch] like myself last year. Until he gets one of those, he's not going to talk to me."

Considering the media attention, there were plenty of folks to chat up. What's usually a quiet opening workout attended by maybe a handful of reporters in most years had about three times that on Friday, including at least a handful of national writers.

The attention on fielding practice, Leyland suggested, is somewhat misdirected.

"I think everybody's got it a little bit misunderstood," Leyland said. "It wasn't that we missed the balls. PFP normally is [about] catching the ball. We caught them. We threw them away."

Asked if he noticed the crowd, Zumaya said, "Not really. I was trying to focus on making the throw to third."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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