Slapping leather

Much was made of the Red Sox’ off-season of upgrading themselves defensively with the acquisition of third baseman Adrian Beltre, center fielder Mike Cameron and shortstop Marco Scutaro. The Yankees didn’t make as many changes, yet they are best defensive team in the American League East by far right now.

Certainly, the Yankees’ trade for center fielder Curtis Granderson from the Tigers represented an update defensively in the outfield, since he essentially replaced the below-average Johnny Damon. Granderson compared to Melky Cabrera, who went to the Braves in the deal that imported pitcher Javier Vazquez, is actually a push, but his arrival allowed Brett Gardner to take over in left, which is a big improvement over Damon.

Nothing changed in the Yankees’ infield, however, which was a good thing. The Yankees are slapping leather big time, and there were several good examples in the early innings Thursday night at Baltimore. First baseman Mark Teixeira made two fine scoops of throws in the dirt to secure outs. One was on a peg in the third inning from third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who made a fine, bare-handed pickup of a spinning grounder by Nick Markakis.

Second baseman Robinson Cano got the first out of that inning with what is becoming a patented play of his. He ranged far to his right to back-hand a grounder up the middle by Nolan Reimold and in one motion threw a strike to Teixeira. The play was reminiscent of the kind of play shortstop Derek Jeter makes regularly with a hop, skip and throw after moving to his right in fielding a grounder.

Pitchers appreciate this kind of work, naturally, and A.J. Burnett was no exception. Another alert play was by backup catcher Francisco Cervelli, who pounced on a dribbler on the plate by Miguel Tejada and threw to first while the Baltimore third baseman stood in the batter’s box clearly believing the ball was foul. Cervelli, starting in place of injured Jorge Posada (bruised right knee) knew the plate is in fair territory and never hesitated in making a play.

The Yankees entered play Thursday night with merely eight errors in 20 games. Only the Twins, with three boots in 21 games, were doing better among AL teams. Fielding clearly is among the 2010 Yankees’ greatest assets.

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