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Isiah Kiner-Falefa enjoys a mostly soft return to center field

LAKELAND, Fla. — The last time Isiah Kiner-Falefa played center field in a big game, he was still trying to break into the majors.

On June 17, 2017, “IKF” took over the middle of the outfield for the Texas Rangers’ Double-A affiliate, the Frisco RoughRiders. The game score box in miLB.com you notice a nondescript fielding error, but a teammate past and present remembers exactly what happened.

“In over his head,” José Treviño, who caught that game, calmly conceded when pressed for more details. But Treviño added that this was only Kiner-Falefa’s second, and most recent, professional appearance at center. The other came on August 5, 2016, also for Frisco.

“He had a little problem with one of them,” Treviño told the Daily News. “But he was pretty new to this. I feel that he is better now ”.

That appeared to be the case Friday, when Kiner-Falefa returned to center field to start New York’s 8-7 spring training loss to the Tigers in Lakeland, Florida. An infielder by trade, the 27-year-old said he was comfortable. on a handful of fly balls, including New York’s first two outs of the game. He even said that the aforementioned mistake a few years ago, that he came in with a ball in the gap, taught him to run smoother routes and keep his head still.

“I was a little nervous going in just because it’s a new position, but I had a lot of fun today,” Kiner-Falefa said after exiting Friday’s game. “I feel like I was tested in every way today for the most part.”

However, Kiner-Falefa’s afternoon was not without errors. He said he should have gone to third on a throw home that was cut up. There was also a lazy fly ball that fell between shortstop Anthony Volpe and left fielder Aaron Hicks; Kiner-Falefa took charge of the play, since he misread the card he has on hand for defensive lineups.

“They put the spot up and you have to do the math to match your steps, because my steps and (Aaron) Judge’s steps are completely different,” Kiner-Falefa said, using a teammate with a significantly larger shoe size. to explain what went wrong. “So yeah, I blew it today. I was supposed to be on the shortstop side, but I accidentally lined up on the (second base) side, so I couldn’t get there.”

Added manager Aaron Boone, who otherwise praised Kiner-Falefa’s performance at center: “He’s got to master card lingo to know where to be.”

Kiner-Falefa recently began taking reps at center (he’s still tearing up his outfield glove), as the Yankees hope he can be a useful super-utility player after spending his debut season in the pinstripes primarily at shortstop. .

A light hitter, the Kiner-Falefa defense at short hurt New York at times in 2022, and Boone ended up benching him for a few playoff games. One of those starts was for prospect Oswald Peraza, who performed well in a small sampler last September. This spring, Peraza and No. 1 prospect Volpe have pushed Kiner-Falefa aside in a contest to be New York’s starting shortstop.

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But Kiner-Falefa’s speed and versatility — he was sacked, played second and won a Gold Glove at third base in the majors — offers value, which the Yankees are trying to maximize with this center-field audition. Boone added that he, too, will look to get Kiner-Falefa time in the corner outfield.

“Izzy is the type of guy that if you tell him to run through a brick wall, he’ll ask, ‘Which one?’” Treviño told The News of his teammate’s willingness to move around the brick wall. Diamond.

Of course, there is the possibility that some other team could benefit from the increasing versatility of Kiner-Falefa. With both shortstop prospects eventually expected to play in the middle and Oswaldo Cabrera also offering super-useful prowess (DJ LeMahieu can move around the infield as well), the Yankees could trade Kiner-Falefa before Opening Day, or later this season.

Boone, however, has appreciated Kiner-Falefa’s eagerness to do whatever is asked of her.

“That’s what’s been going on with Izzy ever since he got here,” the manager said. “He just wants to win, and he wants to win in pinstripes. It’s important to him, and he’s worked very hard.”

From Kiner-Falefa’s perspective, having several flexible players will only help the Yankees in their quest for a championship.

“Getting the chance to play center field is a big step and I’m excited,” Kiner-Falefa said. “You see guys like Chris Taylor, Cabrera, (Kike Hernandez). In the last two years, good teams had a lot of guys like that. It wasn’t just a guy.”

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