Nunez capable, if not graceful, in outfield
NEW YORK -- The baseball went this-a-way, the left fielder went that-a-way. And that wasn't any way to pursue a fly ball. But it all worked out the Yankees' way on Monday night. They held on for a 2-1 win over the Orioles -- the first-place Orioles, until late Monday night -- with Eduardo Nunez playing left field. Nunez contributed, and like the innocent little boy with a hand in the Sunday collection plate, he almost took away.
Not only did Nunez play left field, he also perplexed it. The game made demands of Nunez, and he responded, making all of the plays he had to make. Five fly balls or line drives and one base hit -- all handled cleanly by a shortstop. Style points are never the issue anyway, no matter who is assigned to play the No. 7 position, until Gold Glove conversations begin. Chances are, such conversations won't involve Nunez any time soon, whether he reprises his role of Monday night or not.
With left fielder Brett Gardner assigned to the disabled list and the Yankees intent on limiting the chance Nick Swisher will require the same designation, Nunez was inserted, manager Joe Girardi said, because of his athleticism. Nunez started in left for the first time in his big league career. He had played the position briefly, once, and he'd made two other outfield starts, both in right. Neophyte in neon.
"We have him targeted as being an everyday shortstop someday," Girardi said before the game. "He's athletic, he has a lot of speed and there's a lot of different things he can do. We're going to find out."
Girardi recalled another attempt to find out.
"When we put him [in left] in games in Spring Training, nobody hit the ball to him," Girardi said. But in the regular season, the ball finds the plebe. It senses uncertainty. And like an NFL quarterback intent on exploiting rookie coverage, the Orioles found Nunez. Four of their first nine batters hit the ball to left, including two of the first three.
"He was tested tonight -- he had only one easy play," Girardi said.
And one that was difficult. Matt Wieters, batting left-handed against right-handed starter Hiroki Kuroda, hit an opposite-field line drive in the fifth. Nunez moved toward the gap, but then stopped, twisted and backhanded the ball.
"It was like a knuckleball," Nunez said. "It changed direction."
Television cameras caught several smiles in the Yankees' dugout.
Nunez changed, too, if only for a moment, from a graceful athlete to a left-field hybrid of Manny Ramirez and Daniel Murphy. He had to chase Chris Davis' sacrifice fly to the warning track in the second inning, move back on Nolan Reimold's fly ball leading off the first and sprawl after catching Nick Markakis' short fly two batters later. Nunez compensated with enthusiasm for whatever he lacked in smoothness. Still, there was a sense of Lonnie Smith, nicknamed "Skates" for a reason, about Nunez's night of adventure.
"I liked it," Nunez said. "I'll play there if they ask me. I don't want to make a mistake. I tried to be careful."
Girardi said that Nunez had "an outstanding game," which qualified as manager-speak for "good enough." More telling was that when Girardi wanted to shore up his defense in the ninth, he had Andruw Jones displace Raul Ibanez in right field. The only ball that reached the outfield during Mariano Rivera's inning was a base hit.
Jones, his many Gold Gloves still shimmering, began working with Nunez in Spring Training. He says his student has potential.
"They need to put him out there so he can develop trust in his talent," Jones said. "Let him play out there if that's where they think he's going to play. I told him to try to show that he can play everywhere. He makes himself an everyday player that way. He doesn't have bad hands. He might get a bad jump sometimes, but his speed will cover the bad jump.
"What he needs to do is get familiar with left. He should go out there [during batting practice, when pitchers shag fly balls] and tell the pitchers, 'Get out of the way; I've got to work on something.'"
The pitchers might take that as a warning, too.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.