LOS ANGELES — Andrelton Simmons made two spectacular plays Monday against San Diego that reminded everyone why the Braves shortstop is widely regarded as not only the best defensive shortstop in the National League, but arguably the best defender at any position in the majors.
He laid out to make a diving stop going to his left on the first play, but topped that with a sensational bare-handed grab-and-throw later in the game. The bouncing ball took a peculiar hop and was spinning away from him when he snatched it out of the air and threw to first base in one continuous motion for the out.
It was a play that was absolutely Ozzie Smith-esque, and in fact reminded a lot of folks of the famous play when the great Cardinals shortstop dove for a ball to his left and reached back in mid-air to grab it with his bare hand when the ball took a bad hop and went to his right. That’s the play that Simmons cites of all the ones he’s watched by Smith on videotape.
Both of Simmons’ plays in Monday’s 2-0 win showed up in ESPN’s Top 10 Plays of the Day, with the bare-handed play judged to be No. 1 for the day in all of sports. And highlights like that are the kind of thing that voters remember when casting their ballots for Gold Gloves at the end of the year.
Simmons won his first Gold Glove last year in his first full season in the majors, and also took home the Rawlings Platinum Glove as the best defender in the National League regardless of position.
He’s made more errors than expected so far this season, but Simmons lately has been coming up with the spectacular sort of plays that he made so frequently last year. Meanwhile, he’s also begun to show some progress at the plate in July, batting .282 (24-for-85) with five doubles and .344 on-base percentage before Tuesday’s series opener against the Dodgers.
He was at .255 overall with a .300 OBP, 21 extra-base hits (five homers) and a .348 slugging percentage in 100 games this season.
While Simmons was still only slugging .341 for the month, that wasn’t such a bad thing, since Braves hitting coaches have suggested to him for some time that he needs to utilize the whole field, be willing to take his walks, and stop being a dead-pull hitter and swinging so hard all the time. Before July, his highest OBP in the first three full months of the season had been .288 in May.
He’s been a relatively good hitter in close-and-late situations (.274, 20-for-73) and had a .268 average (22-for-82) with runners in scoring position, with seven extra-base hits, 30 RBIs and a .347 OBP. Not earth-shattering numbers in that latter category, but among the best on a Braves team that’s struggled mightily with runners in scoring position.
Still, what the Braves want and get most from Simmons is off-the-charts defense. He changes games with his glove and strong arm, and his extraordinary defensive skills were the prime reason the Braves signed him to a seven-year, $58 million contract at the beginning of spring training, when he was still at least one year away from being arbitration-eligible.
Soon after Simmons signed that contract, a distinguished Dutch filmmaker, Mark Smeets, came to Braves spring-training camp in Florida to do a segment on Simmons for a documentary that Smeets was doing on the growing influence of baseball players from the Netherlands and the Netherlands Antilles – also known as the Dutch Antilles — the group of islands that includes Curacao, the home of both Simmons and Andruw Jones, the former Braves center fielder who won 10 Gold Gloves.
The Netherlands Antilles also includes Aruba, home of Simmons’ friend Xander Bogaerts, the young Red Sox shortstop and third baseman. Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, Reds outfielder Roger Bernandina and former Yankee Hensley Meulens are also from Curacao.
“Now he’s big,” Smeets said of Simmons, whose awards last season and big contract this spring made him a household name in Curacao. “Since they signed him for, seven years? Fifty-some million? That’s a lot of money. For that island? You can buy the whole island.”
“He is accepted, Xander Boagarts is accepted very well, and the kid Jansen.”
Smeets wanted to illustrate for people in the Netherlands and in the Netherlands Antilles how well their players are doing in the majors now, how well they are treated, the lifestyle and the different culture.
“He was very honest, he said that he never, never thought of being a professional player when he went to the United States,” Smeets said after interviewing Simmons at spring training, with a film crew recording everything. “He went (to an Oklahoma junior college) for an education, and it turned out that he was a good player, and now he’s here. And his whole family is smiling, of course.”
But Smeets said the most famous player from Curacao remains Jones, the smooth-fielding center fielder who hit 434 homers in the majors and ranked first in the NL defensive WAR four times in a five-year span. Jones has played in Japan the past two seasons.
“Andruw Jones was the first one,” Smeets said. “The dollar means status (in Curacao). Andruw is a god. If you land on the airport of Curacao, the first bar you see on the airport is the Andruw Jones sports bar. No kidding. He is so popular. Muelens is popular. He (Simmons) is popular. And Xander Boagarts is popular.”
Simmons spoke Dutch for part of the interview.
“He said that he didn’t speak it for half a year, so he excused himself for not having spoken it enough,” said Smeets, who seemed to be impressed by Simmons’ good-natured personality and humble attitude.
BRAVES LINEUP Tuesday vs. Dodgers
- BUpton CF
- La Stella 2B
- Freeman 1B
- JUpton LF
- Gattis C
- Johnson 3B
- Doumit RF
- Simmons SS
- Harang P
• Braves vs. Dodgers: This three-game series is the first matchup of the season between the Braves and West-leading Dodgers. The teams have split 20 games since the beginning of the 2011 season, but that doesn’t include the 2013 Division Series.
The Braves went 5-2 with a 1.88 ERA against the Dodgers during the 2013 regular season, then 1-3 with a 5.82 ERA and a .214 batting average in the playoff series, totaling just 28 hits, 14 runs and one homer in four games.
The Dodgers just swept a three-game weekend series from the Giants to reclaim first place in the West. But they are 9-7 with a 4.12 ERA and .239 batting average in their past 15 games, and the Dodgers have gone homerless in 12 of their past 13 games.
The Braves are 9-8 with a 3.62 ERA and .251 batting average and 10 homers in their past 17 games, and won three in a row against the Padres after dropping the opener of the four-game series in Atlanta. They played Monday, while the Dodgers were off.
• Tonight’s matchup: It’s Aaron Harang (9-6, 3.31) against Dodgers veteran righty Josh Beckett (6-5, 2.52) in tonight’s series opener at Dodger Stadium.
Harang, one of the most pleasant surprises of the Braves season, is 4-0 with a 2.20 ERA in his past six starts, despite a modest .268 opponents’ average and only 21 strikeouts with 14 walks in 41 innings.
He’s 3-0 with a 2.25 ERA in his past three road starts, allowing 21 hits and eight walks but only five runs in 20 innings.
Harang is 4-6 with a 4.26 ERA in 11 career starts against the Dodgers, but was 2-0 with a 0.45 ER and .094 opponents’ average in three starts against them in 2011 and hasn’t faced them since. He went 10-10 as a Dodger in 2012 and has a 3-7 record and 3.80 ERA in 18 career starts at Dodger Stadium
Against Harang, Hanley Ramirez is 10-for-26 with five homers, and Adrian Gonzalez is 7-for-17 with three homers.
Beckett is 1-1 with a 5.93 ERA in his past three starts, after going 5-4 with a 2.02 ERA in his first 15 starts this season.
He is 1-4 in 10 home starts despite a 2.70 ERA and .221 opponents’ average. (He’s 5-1 with a 2.28 ERA and .195 opponents’ average in eight road starts.)
Left-handed batters have batted .240 with 11 homers and .308 OBP in 200 at-bats against Beckett, while righties have hit just .177 with four homers and a .245 OBP in 186 at-bats. He’s limited hitters to a .161 average with runners on base and a .162 average (11-for-68) with RISP.
Beckett is 6-0 with a microscopic 0.38 ERA in his past seven starts against the Braves, with a .165 opponents’ average and just two runs allowed in 47 innings. However, he hasn’t faced them since 2009 and hasn’t faced most current Braves much if at all.
The former Marlins and Red Sox right-hander is 8-7 in 18 starts against the Braves despite a sparkling 2.08 ERA, most of those starts in the first half of the previous decade when he was part of the young Marlins staff that included A.J. Burnett and Brad Penny, with Ryan Demspter and a few others overlapping in that period as well.
Against Beckett, Justin Upton is 2-for-5 with a homer, B.J. Upton is 7-for-37 (.189) with one walk and 12 strikeouts, and Gerald Laird (2-for-8) is the only other Brave with more than three official at-bats.
Chris Johnson is 18-for-48 (.375) with 12 extra-base hits (two homers), 10 RBIs and a .729 slugging percentage in 14 games at Dodger Stadium…
Freddie Freeman, an Orange County native, is 15-for-43 (.349) with two homers and six RBIs in 10 games at Dodger Stadium….
Jason Heyward has a .193 average (11-for-57) with one double, no homers and two RBIs in 15 games at Dodger Stadium, and a hard-to-fathom .165 career average (16-for-97) with no homers, six RBIs, 12 walks and 31 strikeouts in 27 overall games against the Dodgers, with a .206 slugging percentage.
• Let’s close with a great one from the late, great Levon Helm, which you can hear by clicking here.
“THE MOUNTAIN” by Levon Helm
Before they knocked down the timber and stripped mined all the coal
When you rose up in the morning before it was light
To go down in that dark hole and come back up at night
She holds me and she keeps me from a worry and a woe
Well they took everything she gave, she gave it now she’s gone
But I’ll die on this mountain, this mountain’s my homeI was young on this mountain but now I am old
And I knew every holler, every cool swimmin’ hole
Til a one night I lay down and I woke up to find
That my childhood was over I went back down in the mine
There’s a hole in this mountain it’s dark and it’s deep
And God only knows all the secrets that it keeps
There’s a chill in the air only miners can feel
There’re ghosts in the tunnels that the company sealed