DeWitt eager to be first choice at second

DeWitt eager to be first choice at second

PHOENIX -- Those who saw Blake DeWitt jump from Double-A to a big league third baseman in 2008 might be wondering, after then seeing DeWitt start at second base in the playoffs that October, why does he need to prove himself all over again to be the starting second baseman this year.

Dodgers coach Larry Bowa is happy to explain.

"The difference from second base to third base is like night and day," said Bowa, a former Gold Glove shortstop. "Everything at second base has to be quick. The arm action, shorter. You have to be able to turn the double play -- quick. You have to get out of the way of a runner bearing down on you. Your first step has to be much quicker. You have more to do on bunt plays, on cutoffs and relays and pickoffs."

And from what the Dodgers had seen previously of DeWitt, his feet and hands simply weren't quick enough. So after letting Gold Glove second baseman Orlando Hudson leave via free agency, the Dodgers signed both Jamey Carroll and Ronnie Belliard because they weren't sure if DeWitt could handle to subtleties of the position.

Meanwhile, DeWitt did what he was told over the winter. He played three weeks of winter ball in the Dominican Republic, spent two cram sessions in Texas with Minor League infield instructor Matt Martin and showed up at the developmental minicamp at Dodger Stadium in January.

Then, he reported to Spring Training to show Bowa what he had learned. Here are the early returns.

"He's doing very good, an improvement of 100 percent from last year," Bowa said. "His exchange from the glove to the hand is quicker. His pivot at second is quicker. But again, we haven't seen him in game situations, with people in the seats and the guys in the other colored uniforms. The game speeds up and it's a matter of taking into the game what we're seeing here in the morning.

"He's got to be able to make the routine double play. You can't afford to miss those, they are so important, they can bail a pitcher out of a bad inning. When you don't get a double play on a double-play ball, that kills you. But you also can't try for a double play on a ball that isn't a double-play ball. You have to understand the difference. You have to understand the score, understand the inning, understand the hitter. And it's all about preparation before the pitch. Those are things you have to do at second base, where at third base, it's reaction. The ball is hit hard, you knock it down and throw the guy out."

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In Friday's exhibition opener, DeWitt fielded both balls hit his way and went 1-for-2 with a walk at the plate.

"He played both sides of the ball," manager Joe Torre said. "He looked comfortable at second. He's worked hard there and I'm curious to see how it goes the rest of spring."

Bowa said DeWitt, 24, has been helped this spring by focusing solely on one position, instead of being moved around as he was last spring, and it continued throughout a season in which he was called up a record six times.

"That was asking a lot for a young kid," Bowa said. "Take third base, take second base, take shortstop. It's not fair to him. It was a lost year. In my opinion -- it's Ned [Colletti, general manager] and Joe's call -- but in my opinion having seen a lot of kids, either he's got to be the everyday second baseman or at worst in a platoon. Sitting for 10 days or two weeks won't help him. He's too young to do that. He's a great kid, his work ethic, he's very professional, the way he battles. he has a chance to be something special, I think."

From the start, DeWitt showed management he had the hard-nosed, no-complaint character teams love. But he was rushed to the big leagues because of injuries to third basemen Nomar Garciaparra and Andy LaRoche, with only half a Double-A season and no Triple-A seasoning. The fast track and position switch have left DeWitt with much to learn.

"When I played in '08, they would tell me I'm doing something wrong and I didn't understand," said DeWitt. "I'm figuring out a few things. I learned from Hudson. Just from watching him. He has a great feel for the position. Now I realize when I'm doing things wrong.

"One thing I realize is that when I try to be too quick, it holds me back. I get in a rush. I'm learning to slow it down. You don't realize, you can be quick without rushing. It probably sounds weird, but I'm understanding it. When I don't rush, I have less movement. I'm more compact."

Martin echoed Bowa's evaluation.

"The first time he came down to Texas a year ago, his lower half was really tight," said Martin. "So his focus was on flexibility, from his ankle to his hips. You need that to do things that Larry talks about. He has the tools, but there was too much body movement and it wasn't working well together. Now he's looking more like a natural second baseman. Before, he looked like a third baseman playing second base. At times, he still looks that way, but he has more of a feel for the way his body moves. He'll get better and better with game experience."

DeWitt's time with Martin at Texas Tech included an unexpected lunch with legendary college basketball coach Bob Knight, who gave DeWitt a lecture about desire. Martin later told Knight he didn't need to worry about DeWitt's desire.

"Coach liked hearing that," said Martin.

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.