To appreciate the greatness of the Marlins' double play combination of Alex Gonzalez and Luis Castillo, you have to watch the last few minutes of their daily infield work during batting practice. "The first 15 or 20 minutes, they field every ground ball like it's the seventh game of the World Series, they're as sound as can be,'' said Marlins infield instructor Perry Hill. "But then they save time for a little fun. What they can do is amazing.''
Gonzalez will take a ground ball, flip it into the air with his glove, then kick it to Castillo covering second. "It goes right to him every time,'' said Hill. Castillo will field a grounder, bounce it through his legs, or behind his back, to Gonzalez at the bag. They catch balls backhanded between their legs. "Now that's a vulnerable situation,'' Hill said, laughing.
That's why Gonzalez and Castillo are our choice for the best double play combo in the big leagues. Last year, Castillo took part in 97 double plays and Gonzalez 99; no team in the National League had a second baseman and a shortstop with individual totals that high. They combined to make 63 double plays that were either 6-4-3 or 4-6-3, most in the NL. "They're the best,'' one scout said. "All you had to do was watch them in the postseason two years ago. They wouldn't have beaten the Cubs without the defense by those guys. And their defense was a big reason why they beat the Yankees. Those two guys are great.''
When Gonzalez and Castillo are cooking, they're like magic, they are the Florida Merlins. And they dazzle while playing on a surface at Dolphin Stadium (formerly Pro Player Stadium) that is as fast as Astroturf. "[Utility man] Damion Easley is a very good defensive player, but when he plays second or shortstop, you can tell the difference,'' one Marlin said. "We've been wondering when the world would find out about these two guys.''
Gonzalez has yet to win a Gold Glove, but that will come. "Everyone talks about his athleticism, how quick he is, how acrobatic he is, but what people don't understand is how much he studies the hitters,'' Hill said. "He positions himself so well, he makes things look so easy. He has a great arm, but we don't throw much off balance, we don't believe in that there. But he's always in position to throw, with his feet set. He can make the pivot so many ways. He can do conventional ways, but if you're on top of him, he can improvise. He shortens innings, and he saves pitchers on pitch counts. He's got to be the leader in defensive RBI.''
Gonzalez doesn't show much emotion, and he doesn't smile much, which won him the nickname "sea bass'' from those who don't know him. "He has been mislabeled for years,'' Hill said. "I've never seen the sea bass. He has done everything we've asked him to do. We've changed a few things with him over the years, and he has never questioned them.''
Castillo has won the NL Gold Glove at second base the last two years. "The thing with Looie is he has tremendously quick feet,'' Hill said. "Runners come at him hard, and they think they have him, and he's gone. What separates him and [Placido] Polanco is a really strong arm. He can throw off his back foot [and be protected by the bag] and avoid the runners.''
New Marlins first baseman Carlos Delgado is in for a treat playing with Gonzalez and Castillo, as well as third baseman Mike Lowell. "I'll tell Carlos to field the balls that come right at him,'' Hill said. "But any ball that's hit hard to your right, Looie will take care of those.''
Hill said he will make sure that Delgado is watching during those final minutes of batting practice when Gonzalez and Castillo put on a show. "I watch them every day,'' Hill said. "And I still love to see it. You can't take your eyes off them.''
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight.