Left side of infield a strength for Angels
Figgins at third, Aybar at short possess superb athleticism
BOSTON -- Left-side infield defense is always important. Sometimes, it's absolutely vital.
With southpaws Scott Kazmir pitching in Sunday's Game 3 and, if necessary, Joe Saunders on tap in Game 4 at Fenway Park in the American League Division Series, the gloves of Chone Figgins and Erick Aybar come sharply into focus as the Angels bid to eliminate the Red Sox and render their Nation morose.
Right-handed hitters trying to bang hits through third baseman Figgins and shortstop Aybar have been met with mounting frustration this season.
"I've never seen a more athletic left-side infield," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia. "Figgy and Aybar have had terrific seasons. They're both Gold Glove-caliber, covering a tremendous amount of ground and making all the plays."
For a decade intersecting the 1960s and '70s, Baltimore's Mark Belanger and Brooks Robinson set the gold standard for left-side infield play.
A generation later, Ozzie Smith and Terry Pendleton in St. Louis also made magic, "the Wizard" performing acrobatic acts unseen before or since.
"Belanger and Brooks, as great as they were," Scioscia said, "I don't think they had the athleticism of Figgy and Aybar."
A keen student of the game, Scioscia isn't putting Figgins and Aybar on the level of Belanger and Robinson. He is pointing to one area -- ground covered -- where his tandem takes a back seat to no duo.
Figgins and Aybar are two of the quickest, fastest athletes in the game. Very few balls get through them. And both come equipped with cannon arms, enabling them to knock down bullets and still get outs.
Their work is greatly appreciated by pitchers, right-handers as well as lefties.
"When balls are hit to the left side of our infield," John Lackey said, grinning, "I'm OK with that."
Figgins and Aybar have taken to joking about how the third baseman has hurt Aybar's statistical range factor by roaming wide of the bag to take grounders that normally would belong to the shortstop.
"That's OK," Aybar said, grinning. "I'll get mine going the other way."
Scioscia marvels at Figgins' ability to dart behind the bag and steal doubles backhanded, straighten up and gun down fast runners.
As for Aybar, "there's nobody better turning the double play," the manager said. "He has incredibly quick feet and a strong, accurate arm. He's made some amazing plays down there with [second basemen Maicer] Izturis and [Howard] Kendrick."
Izturis, a natural shortstop, and Kendrick have shared second base, both handling the job with dexterity and consistency. Rounding out the infield, first baseman Kendry Morales has evolved into a solid defender specializing in quick, on-the-money throws, triggering 3-6-3 or 3-6-1 double plays.
"Our defense overall has been terrific all year," Scioscia said. "They've saved a lot of games for us."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.