DETROIT -- The first dazzling defensive play at Comerica Park of the 2016 season came courtesy of the Detroit Tigers' Nick Castellanos, The infielder ran down a Jacoby Ellsbury foul ball and made a beautiful back-handed catch that saw him take a head-first dive into the grass.
If you didn't anticipate Castellano flashing the leather first, not many would blame you. The third-year second baseman was maligned for much of the 2015 season for his defensive shortcomings, but if his play on Ellsbury in the first inning of the Tigers' 4-0 win Friday over the New York Yankees was any indication, he is making steady improvements.
Perhaps this shouldn't be surprising, considering Castellanos was a player whose marked progress was a popular topic for manager Brad Ausmus this spring. He might not have had as flashy of a Grapefruit League campaign as former Tigers catcher Bryan Holaday or second baseman Ian Kinsler, but Castellanos was someone who garnered consistent praise from Ausmus for his work on the areas that required improvement and for his perceived potential.
"His mindset coming into spring training was different than the last two spring trainings," Ausmus said. "He has a mindset that he wants to become a good third baseman now. And he's going to have bumps in the road, but I think he understands that it's not to just go out there and try to be good, you have to care about it. And he's beginning to really care and understand how important defense is, not only to his game, but to our team's game."
Castellanos said he wants to help the team, not just with his bat, but with his glove as well.
"Any time I'm able to make a good play and can help my pitcher out and help my team out, I'm going to take pride in that, just as much as getting those hits," he said.
However, Castellanos' defensive gem was later overshadowed by a terrific offensive performance during Friday's home opener. He went 4-for-4 -- the third four-hit game of his career -- and legged out an infield single in his first at-bat.
Considering the sort of offensive firepower the Tigers boast -- Kinsler, Justin Upton, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez make up arguably the most formidable top five in baseball -- Castellanos' continued progression could be an absolute nightmare for pitchers, allowing them virtually no breathers in the lineup.
If Castellanos can make significant strides defensively, that will make a huge difference. He's only 24, with plenty of upside and room to grow. The Tigers expect this to be a season in which Castellanos takes a big step forward. He showed signs of doing just that Friday.