Let's clarify something: Kevin Youkilis is not a first baseman. He is a third baseman who just happens to play at first.
And the Red Sox are far better off for it.
There were a lot of key plays in the Red Sox' 4-1 win over the Los Angeles Angels in Game 1 of the ALDS, none greater than Vladimir Guerrero being thrown out at third base in the bottom of the eighth inning in what was then a 2-1 game. The Angels went from potentially having first and third with one out to a man at first with two outs, taking a game-tying sacrifice fly (or wild pitch, etc.) out of the equation and killing the Angels' momentum. Guerrero obviously made an aggressive (foolish?) decision on the play, but as the Red Sox have pointed out time and time again over the years, that is how the Angels play.
They force the issue.
In this case, with a less determined and less athletic first baseman, Guerrero might have succeeded. But after failing to catch Torii Hunter's blooper into short right field, Youkilis grabbed the ball, righted himself and fired to third baseman Mike Lowell.
"I was right there," Lowell said. "He was out by a mile."
Defense is an area in which the Red Sox have excelled during the second half of this season, a surge that coincided with the arrival of Jason Bay and Jed Lowrie at the two positions where the Sox were weakest. The Sox finished third in the AL in fielding percentage; in all of baseball, only the Houston Astros, New York Mets, New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays made fewer errors. Youkilis is a defending Gold Glove Award winner who plays first base with a third baseman's mentality, which is to say that he throws his body at everything.
Think about it: How many first baseman make the play Youkilis made in Game 1? Guys like Ryan Howard and Prince Fielder would have deferred to the second baseman. What makes Youkilis a truly unique player at his position is that he fields it like a man who plays on the other side of the diamond.
"I think some first basemen don't want to make that play," said Lowell. "I think they'd just hold onto the ball. I love the fact that Youk is an aggressive-minded first baseman. He's at the top of his game over there. He really is."
Obviously, Youkilis's play was not the only one. Jacoby Ellsbury made a terrific catch to start the eighth, taking a hit away from Mark Teixeira. If neither Ellsbury nor Youkilis made great plays, the Angels might still be batting.
Of course, the Red Sox gave away one run in this game following an error by Lowrie … who had not made a single error in 49 games at shortstop this season. (Chalk it up to rookie jitters.) But coupled with the performance of Jon Lester, the Red Sox defense played an enormous role in this win.
"It's a proven formula," said Lowell, who refrained from uttering the mantra of pitching and defense. "If you don't hurt yourself, you're putting yourself in a good position. It kills rallies and makes the other team earn their runs."
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