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Updated: May 5th, 2010 12:07am
Mackey: Don't let Hardy's defensive wizardry be overshadowed

Mackey: Don't let Hardy's defensive wizardry be overshadowed

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com
Tuesday night's plotline in the Twins' 4-3 win over Detroit is likely to be remembered mostly for Nick Blackburn's semi-gem, and for the mob scene at home plate after J.J. Hardy followed a triple to the gap by scoring the game-winning run on a Ryan Perry wild pitch.


But without Hardy's spectacular diving stop in the ninth inning to save that potential game-winning run, the Twins may never have been in a position to win the game in the first place.

Nursing a 3-2 lead heading into the top of the ninth, manager Ron Gardenhire elected to let Nick Blackburn try for a complete game, which didn't seem like a terrible idea based on Blackburn's low pitch count, but at the same time felt a little bit like walking over to a high stakes craps table with three full racks after receiving a modest tax refund check.

The plan blew up immediately when Tigers' left fielder Brennan Boesch blasted a hanging curveball deep into the right field bleachers to tie the game at 3-3. Two batters later, Alex Avila glided into second base with a one-out double that bounced off the glove of Delmon Young in left field. Then when pinch hitter Ramon Santiago poked a ground ball deep toward the hole behind the third base area, a sense of panic spread throughout Target Field.

That's when Hardy loosened his neck-tie, took off the black-framed bifocals, and bolted for the nearest phone booth.

"I definitely didn't have a play at first," Hardy said. "I was just trying to knock it down and make sure (Avila) didn't score. I looked up and he rounded pretty hard, so I just threw it behind him and let (Nick Punto) do the rest."

Hardy's diving stab on Santiago's groundball prevented Avila from scoring on the play. When Avila hung himself out to dry by rounding too far past the third base bag, Hardy threw behind him and Punto applied the tag after a brief rundown, retiring the side and keeping the score tied 3-3.

If Hardy, who also had an RBI single in the sixth to put the Twins up 3-2, doesn't make that diving stop, Avila scores easily from second base, and the Tigers take a 4-3 lead heading into the bottom of the 9th. Instead, Hardy was able to follow up with offensive heroics of his own, helping the Twins to a dramatic victory.

With his 2-for-4 performance, Hardy raised his batting average to .250 on the season. He also raised his on base percentage to .299 and his slugging percentage to .400 -- not fantastic, but certainly on the rise.

But no matter what Hardy's offensive numbers look like by season's end, his fantastic defensive abilities make him one of the most valuable middle infielders in the entire league.

And that's not a stretch.

"[I] probably [take] more pride in my defense than I do offense, and it's something I work pretty hard at," Hardy said. "I think that's the reason I got to the big leagues in the first place is defense. Obviously I work at hitting too, but defense is something I take a lot of pride in."

Hardy currently leads major league shortstops in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) -- a defensive metric used by several MLB teams that includes a fielder's range, arm strength, ability to turn double plays, and ability to avoid making errors.

Over the past three seasons combined, Hardy ranks third in UZR behind only Jimmy Rollins and Cesar Izturis. Hardy has also committed the sixth-fewest errors (23) among shortstops over the past three years.

And when negotiating trade talks with Milwaukee last fall, Twins officials valued Hardy's defense every bit as much as his offensive potential. Same with the manager.

"Playing against us, we always liked the guy," Gardenhire said. "We thought he was very good. If you look at his numbers, you knew that... his numbers were as good as anybody's, as far as not making errors and getting people out he's supposed to get out. Playing against him, we saw him when he killed the ball, hit twenty-something home runs and the whole package. Last year he scuffled a little bit, but defensively he still caught the ball."

Interestingly with Hardy, he's clearly not the fastest guy on the team. Heck, it might be fair to suggest Hardy is one of the slowest middle infielders in all of baseball, at least when it comes to running the bases.

But his ability to range at shortstop is anything but lethargic. And his positioning, according to teammates and his manager, is the main key.

"There's been a lot of players who don't have the most range at shortstop, but played hitters really good and positioned themselves. Hardy does that really well," Gardenhire said.

"I think he catches pretty much every ball that's hit out there, from the middle to the other way, and that's just good instincts and (reading) the ball really well off the bat. I think he's doing pretty good. He's kind of fun to watch out there at shortstop. Reminds me a lot of Greg Gagne -- just never seemed to miss anything, and made all the plays, and made them look routine. That's the way Gags was out there, and Hards reminds me a lot of him."

For proper positioning, it helps to have defensive wizards like Orlando Hudson and Nick Punto on either side. In fact, based on Punto's ability to cover so much ground in the hole, Hardy typically shades further up the middle.

"I noticed it in spring," Hardy said. "I can play more up the middle, as long as he has so much range. There's been quite a few balls that I've been able to get to easily, and he's coming across getting them. So if he can cover that much ground, I might as well move over a little bit."

On Santiago's groundball in the ninth, Hardy said he shaded "straight up," because Santiago tends to spray the ball all over. Santiago did wind up with an infield single, and if not for Avila's base running blunder, who knows what would have happened if the Tigers had men on the corners.

But we could play the ‘if' game forever.

In the end, Hardy's defensive wizardry kept the Tigers from scoring the go-ahead run, ultimately setting the table for offensive glory in the bottom of the ninth.

For Hardy, how fitting.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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