Lackey on Beltre: 'Dude can play'

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The proof that there is some truth in advertising came in the fourth inning, when Alex Cora of the New York Mets whacked a ball that hit Boston Red Sox pitcher John Lackey in the bottom of the shoe.

The ball rolled to the left of the mound, out of Lackey's reach, as Cora sprinted toward first with a gift base hit. Except, it wasn't. Adrian Beltre entered the frame, barehanded the ball, and fired across his airborne body, the ball arriving with startling velocity given the position from which it was launched.

So this is the Adrian Beltre we'd been hearing about in the odd dispatch from the West Coast, or caught a glimpse of on the 2 a.m. "SportsCenter."

"Pretty awesome play by AB, huh?" said Lackey, who had seen similar during the many encounters his former team, the Los Angeles Angels, had had with Beltre's gold glove in Seattle. "The dude can play."

And for the first time this spring, Red Sox fans saw it for themselves, the 8,064 bearing witness at City of Palms Park, and the New Englanders watching the special St. Patrick's Day telecast back home.

And if they were jacked up by the play, so was he.

"More than you can imagine," the soft-spoken Beltre said afterward. "That's probably my favorite play, especially when it's close to being a base hit and I'm able to make that extra little play and the pitcher feels better.

"I don't know, I just react to it. I don't think about how I'm going to throw it, where I'm going to throw it. I try get the ball as quick as I can, get it and throw it, however I can, and try to make a good throw."

The pitchers' bliss factor in Boston has spiraled downward ever since Mike Lowell's right hip betrayed him, turning his splendid play at third -- remember, his .974 fielding percentage is the best all-time among third basemen who have played at least 1,000 games -- into a distant memory.

Enter Beltre, whom the Red Sox didn't seek out with real vigor until they abandoned their pursuit of Jason Bay and it became clear Beltre's market price was going to fall within a range general manager Theo Epstein was willing to accept. Last season's shoulder issues accounted for the drop in Beltre's value, and he was willing to come here on short money to reestablish his worth.

There was a moment Wednesday when the Sox's investment in Beltre was placed in more peril than anyone was comfortable with when, in the sixth inning, the third baseman and catcher Victor Martinez narrowly avoided a collision on a baseline pop-up that fell unclaimed in foul territory.

"I know it scared me," Beltre said, "because I never saw him. I never expected him to be there. That should be my ball, but I got a bad read on it. I was getting there late, but I was almost to it when I heard, 'I got it."'

Martinez had ranged out from behind the plate in pursuit. Meanwhile, the Sox dugout, manager Terry Francona said, was yelling at pitcher Hideki Okajima to make the play.

Fortunately for all parties involved, Beltre heard Martinez.

"Luckily, he said it loud enough so I could hear," Beltre said. "Otherwise, who knows what would have happened? I had just enough time to get out of the way. That wouldn't have been pretty in spring training."

The defense, Beltre says, comes easier than the offense, in part because defense, especially at third base, is mostly about reaction.

"That's one of the things about defense I like so much, that you don't have to think," he said. "Offensively, I think too much, and that's probably what gets me in trouble."

He acknowledges that the bat has been slow to come around this spring. He has three hits, all singles, in 16 exhibition at-bats, a pattern that if it continues will cause concern that last season's performance (a career-low eight home runs and 44 RBIs) is the beginning of a downward trend.

Too early for that now, of course, but Beltre admits he's searching. He's done some extra work with hitting coach Dave Magadan the last couple of days.

"I'm not comfortable yet," he said. "Today, I felt better by my last at-bat. I found out I was starting real late. The ball was halfway to the plate before I started moving my body. I saw on the video that I was really late, and I was really drifting because I was late."

Now that he's seen it, Beltre says the issue is correctable, although he'll probably fiddle with his stance most of the spring until he settles into one that satisfies his comfort zone. "I haven't gotten there yet," he said.

In the meantime, however, he will continue to offer aid and succor with his glove. Sometimes, as in the Lackey shoe carom, in spectacular fashion.

"Signature play?" he said. "I don't really have a signature play. Obviously it's nice that I'm able to still do that. I hadn't done it this year, so I guess I can still do it."

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.