Reynolds has to improve defensively to stay at third, and win over fans

The Baltimore Sun

Two springs ago, I did a story on new Oriole third baseman Mark Reynolds.

The premise was this: With his big power, laid-back personality and blue-collar, sacrifice-the-body play, Reynolds had a chance to be the next true fan favorite in Baltimore.

But that premise came with a caveat: Reynolds would have to produce before the fans would truly embrace him. He would have to show prodigious power and cut down on the 200 strikeouts a year and play strong defense. Then the fans would love him and his lunch-pail persona.     

Well, the guy hit 37 homers last year. And he got under 200 strikeouts – just barely, at 196 – for the first time since 2007.

But it was his defense that got the fans’ attention. They notice third base defense around here; it’s a birthright of Orioles fans. And Reynolds made 31 errors in 2011, including an eye-popping 26 at the hot corner.

So he didn’t become a fan favorite. But he showed that work ethic. He busted his butt this offseason, lost weight and added flexibility. He wanted to play third base again, and manager Buck Showalter gave him a shot.

On Tuesday, he made his second error in five games, and it was a killer. He allowed a ball to clank off his chest in the sixth inning that would have been the third out of the inning. A runner scored on the play, and the Yankees tied the game at 4 with a single by the next batter.

It took a potential win away from Wei-Yin Chen, who was making his big league debut. Eventually, the Orioles lost, 5-4, in the 12th, an inning in which Reynolds couldn’t corral a foul pop. That one meant nothing toward the game’s outcome, but it was just another reminder of Reynolds’ troubles at third.

The truth is this Reynolds’ experiment isn’t going well, but Showalter won’t want to pull the plug, not soon anyway.

Here is what Showalter said after the game: “He had a couple of really good plays, too, and early in the season. Some good. Mark's going to do some good things. He started out a little slow last year with the bat. He'll get it going, and he'll be a big contributor for us.”

Reynolds doesn’t want to DH -- but the club may be better served if he does since they have other alternatives at third base: Wilson Betemit, Chris Davis, Robert Andino and Ryan Flaherty.

A five-game period is too early to make a determination on a player at a position. But based on what he did last year -- he also had 34 errors at third in 2008 with Arizona -- the dye seems set on what the outcome will be.

The shame of it is that Reynolds really could be a fan favorite if his defense improved dramatically. He is a likeable, standup guy, and he proved it on Tuesday.

He was there at his locker after the game and answered questions without a blink. And he put the blame squarely on his shoulders.

“Chen pitched his tail off out there, and I boot that ball. That’s a play that’s got to be made,” he said. “They capitalized on it, and we really couldn’t get anything going after that. It’s very, very, very frustrating.”

He was asked how tough it is to make key errors considering all his work this offseason: “It’s real tough. It’s tough having your own fans boo you -- and deservedly so. It’s a play that has to be made. You can’t give teams extra outs. And I did that. And they capitalized. It’s very frustrating.”

He was asked about trying to get past the rough day: “It’s done. I can’t do anything about it. I’m going to just keep puttering along. Just keep working, and trying to get better and just trying to forget about it. That’s easier said than done, obviously, but I’ve got to put it behind me. I know these guys in here are behind me, and I’ve just got to forget about it and move on.”

Reynolds said all the right things. Most important, he was there to say them. Maybe that means nothing to most fans, but I’ve seen players who were loved in this town who failed to show in the clubhouse in a timely manner after a bad game or rough stretch. So give Reynolds full credit for posting. That takes courage. That should be commended.

But unfortunately, that’s not enough. To endear himself to Baltimore, he has to make the plays, too.

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