ST. LOUIS — This offseason, the Cardinals went looking for more speed and athleticism to improve their club, finding a lightning fast outfield solution in Peter Bourjos.
Bourjos has been a defensive wizard in center field, offering a range that is arguably unmatched at his position, though certainly among baseball’s elite. His speed tightens the safe landing zone for hitters, frustrating those with gap power and often altering the course of an inning.
“I take a lot of pride in my defense, and work hard at it,” Bourjos said before the opener with Milwaukee Tuesday. “I enjoy going out there and taking away hits. I think I’ve been really fortunate to play with some really good outfielders throughout my career and here as well.”
The speedy 27-year-old has roamed alongside an impressive rolodex of names, including Torii Hunter, Vernon Wells and Bobby Abreu. Hunter made a name for himself with circus catches and a feel for the outfield that made him seem almost precognitive at times.
When Bourjos was in Los Angeles, he and budding superstar outfielder Mike Trout soaked up all they could when the veterans were teaching.
“Picking guys’ brains like Torii Hunter, Vernon Wells- those guys helped me out a lot and helped Trout out a lot,” Bourjos said with a nod. “They took us under their wings and every single day if we had questions, they were there for us.”
Perhaps one of the best lessons the veterans taught Bourjos was the value of tireless improvement. Every day he can, the young outfielder takes fly balls off the bat as part of his routine. Whether he’s in the lineup or not, Bourjos does his best to get defensive work in preparation for any balls hit his way.
There have been a few Cardinal fans will remember, most notably a shot off the bat of Logan Schafer
in Milwaukee that Bourjos raced to the centerfield wall and caught in a Willie Mays-esque grab that saved the game.
There are many more moments, however, that go unseen. Tiny adjustments to hitters, changes in positioning based on situations that give a fielder the slightest edge on a fly ball. It happens subtly throughout the game, but each adjustment made can be the difference between a game-saving catch and a two-run double.
“Earlier in the year for me I was really leaning on [Holliday] and [Jay] a lot because I hadn’t seen a lot of these guys, having been in the American League,” he said. “They helped me out a lot and we’re just trying to do the same thing with [Taveras] and [Grichuk].”
With two rookie right fielders getting time in the field, it falls to Jay and Bourjos to aid in their positioning throughout a game. It’s a role Bourjos says he gladly takes on, hoping to pass on his now veteran experience like he was others passed it on to him.
“You try to help them out as much as you can. Move them in on certain counts, and back on other counts. I think the more they’re up here, the more they realize,” he said enthusiastically. “The more they’re playing against these guys they’re going to start to understand what the hitter is trying to do or what his approach is at the plate.”
A rotating stable in the outfield has made chemistry, even familiarity a tough thing to nail down in 2014. The trio of Jay, Holliday and Bourjos is the most familiar, but that has only truly developed in the second half of the season. Still, Bourjos is quick to point out even the most in-sync outfielders can be undone by a savvy bat.
“The more you play with somebody it’s going to be easier, but you just never know too,” he said. “The pitcher can make his pitch and the hitter can hit it in the other direction. So obviously you try to do your best at that, but sometimes it doesn’t work out.”
What that happens, only speed can save you. Luckily for Bourjos, he’s got enough of that to make nearly every ball that goes airborne an out.