Infield taking aggressive approach

Infield taking aggressive approach

JUPITER, Fla. -- "Pop!"

As Mike Jacobs pounded his bat head into the webbing of his brand-new first-baseman's mitt again and again, a sharp thwack resonated through the Marlins' clubhouse at Roger Dean Stadium early in the morning on Feb. 24.

"Pop!"

Jacobs, his thick neck muscles tightened and teeth clenched, looked more like he was hacking at an inside pitch than a player attempting to break in a stiff glove at the start of Spring Training.

"Pop!"

Jacobs' third-to-last whack, before stopping to talk to a reporter, was the loudest. "We're attacking it this year," Jacobs said.

"Pop!"

An aggressive fielding approach -- "popping" out of last year's doldrums and onto the 2008 scene with sound defense -- is exactly the philosophy the Marlins' infield is taking into this season.

Florida -- which won the 2003 World Series with one of the best defensive infields of that year -- ranked last in errors in the Major Leagues with 137 in 2007. The Marlins' infield is anxious to prove they can -- literally -- learn from their mistakes.

"We can't have the ball in our hands enough this Spring Training," infield coach Andy Fox said. "We've extended out the drills so everyone has a little more time for work. The more time you have that ball in your hands, the better you can be."

Going around the horn in 2003, only one Marlins infielder totaled more than 10 errors. First baseman Derrek Lee made five errors, second baseman Luis Castillo made 10, shortstop Alex Gonzalez made 16 and third baseman Mike Lowell made nine. The Marlins would love to regain that form.

The good news for Marlins fans is that the infield made fewer miscues in 2007 as the season wore on. In fact, shortstop Hanley Ramirez made eight errors after the All-Star beak compared with 16 beforehand (24 total). Double-play counterpart and second baseman Dan Uggla committed just four errors in the second half of the season, finishing with 11. And Jacobs -- who has the best fielding percentage of all returning infielders -- made just seven errors in his 108 games (he missed time with a thumb injury that he suffered from being too aggressive on a ground ball).

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"In the second half of last season, our infield was much improved, as far as our decision-making, and we're just kind of carrying over that mentality into the spring," Fox said.

Even third baseman Miguel Cabrera, largely criticized for his fielding last year, committed 10 errors after the All-Star break in 2007. The three infielders competing for his vacated third-base job all bring sound defense. Jorge Cantu made no errors in 24 games for the Reds and Rays last season, Jose Castillo committed nine errors in 63 games for the Pirates in 2007, and Dallas McPherson (slated to return in Monday's game) made three errors in 37 games for the Angels in 2006.

Now, the Marlins are enrolling the three newcomers vying for the third-base job into their take-charge mentality.

"Obviously, everybody has to step up," Uggla said. "It's not necessarily how many drills you take ... you have to take it upon yourself to make an adjustment. It's not about how many ground balls you take as much as it is about the way you take them -- and making better decisions."

Uggla added that he already feels comfortable with all three third basemen. But it's nowhere near as familiar he is with Ramirez. The up-the-middle tandem enters their third season together, and Fox predicts another great double-play combo this season. In fact, Fox, in his second year as the Marlins' infield coach, is looking for improvement defensively at every infield position.

"With another year under their belt, we're optimistic that it will get better, and it has to get better," Fox said. "We've got to defend to give ourselves a chance to win.

"I think our goal is to continue what we've been doing and control those errors that we can control. Unfortunately, in this game, you're going to make mistakes. But sometimes, you can eliminate mistakes and eliminate some of those unforced errors."

For Jacobs, a fresh mitt is a symbol of an infield starting anew.

"We're not just going through the motions like some teams in Spring Training," Jacobs said. "It's about being in the right spot, and going after everything 100 percent."

"Pop!"

Faran Fagen is a contributor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.