The art of turning a double play begins and ends with the chemistry between the two middle infielders, the second basemen and the shortstop.
They have to understand each other’s movements, be able to read the other’s body language and almost have a sixth sense for what’s coming next.
And it doesn’t hurt if they’re best friends, like the Wingnuts’ duo of Ryan Khoury and Jake Kahaulelio.
“Middle infielders stick together,” said Wichita manager Kevin Hooper, a former middle infielder himself. “It’s what we know. I guess you could say it’s our craft. Jake and Ryno have a special bond and I couldn’t ask for two better guys up the middle.”
In order to keep a return to the American Association championship series a possibility, Hooper made it a priority to ensure Khoury and Kahaulelio returned this season.
The Wingnuts open their season May 16 against the Kansas City T-Bones at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
“It’s exciting to come back because we do have that chemistry,” said Khoury, voted the 2012 American Association Defensive Player of the Year. “I know that if I get the ball around the bag anywhere, Jake is going to hang in there for me. He’s not afraid to get taken out by a runner. I don’t even have to let him know if I’m going to flip it or throw. That’s something we don’t have to worry about.”
But Khoury, the shortstop, and Kahaulelio, the second baseman, won’t be working alone.
C.J. Ziegler, along with his power-hitting bat, returns at first base and Hooper recruited Abel Nieves, a defensive specialist from Venezuela, to man the hot corner this season.
Hooper said Nieves could be the best defensive third baseman in Hooper’s tenure. For an already clean fielding team, the addition with three returners solidifies a defense that Hooper takes pride in.
“We tell our pitchers to pitch to contact because we built this thing around defense,” Hooper said. “We’re not going to sit around and walk guys. If they’re going to beat us, they’re going to have to do it with their bats.”
From his vantage point at first base, it’s hard for Ziegler to appreciate what goes behind double plays generated by Khoury and Kahaulelio.
But given a chance to reflect, he recognized how rare of a combo the Wingnuts will be working with this summer.
“They have the power to change the game in a lot of different ways,” Ziegler said. “Having those two up the middle is every pitcher’s dream.”
But the ultimate praise came from Hooper, who can be a tough critic when it comes to middle infield play.
“They’re a lot of fun to watch on a nightly basis and I think our fans will enjoy watching them play,” Hooper said. “I get a joy watching them every single day because more often than not, one of them is going to make a great play.”
Anytime there’s a ball on the ground, Hooper’s eyes will immediately dart toward second base where the action is sure to be developing.
“Every time we see a ball hit on the ground, you can bet we’re going to turn it,” Nieves said.