Howe confident in Blalock's fielding
Infield coach helping with transition from third to first base
MINNEAPOLIS -- Rangers dugout coach Art Howe knows what Hank Blalock will have to go through to become an accomplished first baseman, and he is confident that Blalock can make a quick transition."Hank has the ability to be an outstanding first baseman," Howe said. "He has as good of hands as anybody. He just needs to experience different things that come up over there." Blalock is expected to be activated off the disabled list on Friday, when the Rangers open a three-game series with the Indians in Cleveland. He has been working out at first base in extended Spring Training, and that's where he'll be Friday night, less than a week after volunteering to move there from third base. Howe had to make a similar transition in his playing career. Initially signed by the Pirates as a shortstop, Howe was traded to the Astros in 1976, where he played primarily second base and third base before incorporating first base in to his repertoire in 1978. He has a checklist of points that Blalock will have to adapt to during his transition to first base. The list starts with the ground ball in the right-side hole between the first and second baseman. It's a balance between two sides. When a ball is hit, the first baseman's natural instinct is to go cover the bag, but Howe says that the first baseman has to be a "fielder first, and a receiver second." That means his first move is to go after a grounder to his right and not automatically go cover the bag. "If your first step is toward first, you're not going to be able to get to the ball, even if it's hit a foot-and-a-half to your right," Howe said. That said, the rule is to let the second baseman get everything he can. That way, a team doesn't have to worry about the pitcher having to cover the bag. "You want to keep the pitcher involved as little as possible, because he has to catch the ball on the run," Howe said. "I told Hank [to] always check with the second baseman to see where he is playing. If the ball is hit at a pretty good pace, the first baseman has to get it. But if it's a slow roller or bouncer, then let the second baseman get it." Next on the list are cutoffs and relays. There are times when the third baseman is the cutoff man for plays at home, and times when it's the first baseman. The basic rule is, if there is a runner on first base, then the first baseman is the cutoff man at home because of the potential play at third base. If there is no runner at first base, the third baseman takes the cutoff. "He just needs to communicate with the third baseman," Howe said. Blalock will also have a trickier throw from first base on potential double-play balls. "The 3-6-3 is the most difficult double play to make," Howe said. "I told him to concentrate on getting the lead runner, and the double play is a bonus. Besides, it's the pitcher's responsibility to get over and cover [first]." Howe said handling pickoffs shouldn't be difficult, although Blalock will have to adjust to the different backgrounds in different stadiums. "It's just like playing catch," Howe said. "Hank will be fine. I felt pretty confident. When you're an infielder, it's just like learning to use your left hand instead of your right hand. You're on the other side of the infield, but you're still an infielder. Being an infielder, you still have the instincts to play the position. "Going from the outfield to the infield is not easy. Being in the outfield, you're used to having a lot of time when the ball is hit to you. But in the infield, the ball gets on you pretty fast. Anybody can play first base, but not everybody can be a good first baseman. If you look at the great infields, they have a solid first baseman on each and every one of those infields."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.