This guy’s a ballplayer

You want heads up baseball? Look no further than Marco Scutaro.

With the Jays ahead 2-1 this afternoon, Scutaro drew a leadoff walk to start the third inning. It certainly wasn’t out of the ordinary. After all, the shortstop has drawn a league-leading 23 walks while leading off an inning this year. But what happened next certainly was out of the ordinary.

While trotting down to first, Scutaro took notice that Phillies starter Joe Blanton wasn’t paying much attention to him. He also noticed that neither Philly middle infielders – Jimmy Rollins nor Chase Utley – were paying attention either.

So, he decided to keep on running. And before the Phils knew it, Scutaro had turned a walk into a double (actually a walk plus a stolen base if you’re scoring at home). But the end result was that instead of standing on first, Scutaro had put himself in scoring position with nobody out, just like that.

And it ended up paying off. Following an Aaron Hill fly out, Scutaro scored on a Vernon Wells double down the left field line. Would he have scored from first on the same hit? This blogger says no. With Jayson Werth getting to the ball in decent time, it’s doubtful we would have seen third base coach Nick Leyva waving his shortstop home on that play, which is important considering what followed – a pop out to short by Scott Rolen and a fly out to left by Adam Lind. Thus, with the same outcome from those two sluggers, Scutaro would not have scored at all.

And how many runs did the Jays end up winning by? One, of course. In the end, Rod Barajas will be seen as the hero of the day (and certainly deserving). He hit a solo homer to break a 7-7 tie in the ninth to lift Toronto to the win. But one could easily look back to that third inning for a subtler game-winning moment.

Scutaro3This is simply the way Scutaro plays the game day in and day out. It’s heads up baseball. He’ll take any edge he can get. And why not? It’s the way he’s learned to play over the last several years as a way to keep a spot in the Major Leagues.

Yet another example of his baserunning prowess: how many times this year have we seen Scutaro make the rare (not for him) tag up from first base on a deep fly ball out? Of course, he only makes this play in situations he’s sure he can make it. But what an advantage it gives the Toronto offense. Depending on the situation, it either means the team has two shots of scoring their leadoff man from second. And that comes without him having to risk a stolen base attempt – with success certainly not a sure thing.

The thing is, Scutaro has developed this style of play over several years. He’s had to. He doesn’t have the raw talent or superstar abilities to make him an every day force in the majors. Simply maintaining a big-league job has not been an easy task for the native of Venezuela. Prior to joining the Blue Jays, Scutaro spent four seasons with the Oakland Athletics as a sort of super utilityman. He played over 100 games in each of those seasons, but was never given a starting job. In fact, that opportunity was presented to him for the first time by the Toronto Blue Jays this past spring.

That’s not to say that Scutaro didn’t think he could do it that whole time.

“I always believed I could do my job every day and play every day,” the 33-year-old told MLB.com in a recent interview. “That’s why I’m really happy for this opportunity (as a starter this year with the Jays), because, after five years as a utility guy, finally somebody gave me an opportunity to play.”

Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi ‘joked’ the other day by saying “Maybe all the teams he played for – us included – should have given him an everyday job earlier.” That may be one of the truest statements Ricciardi has made over the past few years. There’s no doubting Scutaro’s phenomenal play as a starter this year.

Among leadoff hitters, he ranks first in walks and runs scored, and is near the top in hits, doubles, RBIs and extra-base hits. “He’s just been everything you can possibly ask for in a leadoff guy,” Ricciardi said.

Thursday afternoon, Scutaro went 2-for-3 with a trio of walks and a pair or runs, upping his season average to .302 in the process and helping the Blue Jays (36-31) earn a three-game sweep of the defending World Series champion Phillies.

But that’s not it. Scutaro has been nearly flawless in the field this year too, committing just one error all season.

“He’s played better than any shortstop in baseball,” Jays infield instructor Brian Butterfield said recently. “All you have to do, if you’re a numbers guy, is go look at the numbers and you’ll see, total chances, he’s right up there at the top. That means you’ve got to have range and you also know how to position yourself.”

So you think Scutaro, a guy who spent the offseason playing winter ball (as usual) will now rest on his laurels with his newfound job security? Think again. This is a guy who appreciates where he currently finds himself and knows what it’ll take to remain a solid contributor for the Toronto Blue Jays: a lot of hard work. The kind of hard work he’s been accustomed to his whole career.

“Sometimes, what you need is opportunity,” Scutaro said. “There are a lot of guys like me in the Minor Leagues who never had an opportunity.”

Scutaro did get that opportunity and he’s making the most of it. And as long as he’s in that Toronto lineup, expect to continue seeing heads up baseball by a true gamer.

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