CINCINNATI — It was mentioned to Eugenio Suarez that he has been playing third base lately like Brooks Robinson and a perplexed look came over his face before he asked, “Who’s Brooks Robinson?”
Suarez can be forgiven for not knowing about the legendary and iconic third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles whose glove was the world’s strongest suction cup. Robinson’s last game was in 1977 and Suarez was born 14 years later. And he was born in Venezuela.
Ask him about fellow Venezuelans like Luis Aparicio, Davey Concepcion and Omar Vizquel. But Brooks Who?
Nevertheless, after a shaky start when he was doing a passable imitation of a croquet wicket at third base and throwing balls that had fans behind first base wishing they had head protective gear, Suarez is making all the plays with the verve and style of Robinson.
AND IT IS PLEASANT TO see because Suarez drips personality and is a player fans will grow to love. At the start of interviews he gives the interviewer a fist bump and when the interview is over he gives a quick hug.
On Wednesday night against the St. Louis Cardinals he made six plays at third base. Three of them had star notations in everybody’s scorebook, meaning they were great plays.
Twice he made stabs behind the third base bag and threw runners out. He charged a weak grounder and made a barehanded play. He started a 5-4-3 double play.
The Cincinnati Reds are seeing the maturation of a shortstop-turned-third baseman before their eyes, something they hoped they’d see.
When A PLAYER SWITCHES positions there are a lot of nuances to learn. And observing one of the best on another team helps. Suarez noticed that Colorado All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado uses a bigger glove than most.
“So I called Rawlings and said, ‘Send me a bigger glove, an 12-incher,’” said Suarez. And it worked. “The bigger glove has made me feel more comfortable and I am making all the plays.
“I’ve worked hard with (infield coach) Freddie Benavides and he’s helped me a lot,” said Suarez. “My confidence is up right now.”
Suarez smiled broadly and said he no longer feels like a counterfeit third baseman by saying, “Right now I feel like a real third baseman. All my career I played shortstop. When you make a transition to third base you feel like, ‘Wow, this is hard.’ The ball comes to you quick.”
Suarez said his comfort level has only settled in the last month or two, even though he has been at third base since the Reds traded Todd Frazier over the winter.
“I’m a real third base right now,” he said. “Your mechanics are different. You have to be ready quicker. You move your legs differently. You use your legs more. You have more time at third base than at shortstop to make throws.”
AFTER MAKING ALL THE PLAYS Wednesday night, the 24-year-old from Puerto Ordaz said, “You feel like you are the man, like you are the third base right now. When I make those plays, I say to myself, ‘Wow, I can play right here.’”
When most players are learning a position under fire, they tend to think, “Don’t hit it here. Hit in somewhere else.” Not Suarez. His busy night put a smile on his face and he said, “I love it. I like to catch ground balls and like it when the other team hits me a lot of ground balls. It’s my job. When the other team doesn’t hit you any ground balls you feel like, ‘OK, you didn’t play today.’”
The Reds lost Wednesday, 5-4, but manager Bryan Price made a special effort to mention Suarez’s defensive prowess in a losing cause.
“Suarez scuffled initially playing third base, but he has been really senstional the last couple of weeks,” said Price. “He has turned the corner as a defender at third base.
“A lot of plays he is making are not easy plays,” Price added. “They are those tough in-betweeners — short hops to the backhand side, some nice barehand plays on slow choppers coming in and good feeds on the 5-4-3 double plays. He is doing a lot better than his initial 80/85 games when he was trying to figure out the footwork and the positioning.”
PRICE SAID SUAREZ IS passing his audition, which is really what it is all about right now for The Rebuilding Reds.
“That was important to see because this is a big year for us as an organization to take a good, hard look at what we have here,” said Price. “By the time we get to the end of this season we need to have some fairly concrete ideas on which guys are big leaguers and which guys aren’t, which guys can help you win games moving toward the future.”
Right now, Suarez fits snugly in that help-you-win-games slot both with his bat and now with his glove and arm.