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How Che-Hsuan Lin became the most famous defensive replacement in the world

05.24.12 at 3:52 pm ET
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BALTIMORE — It is typically a less-than-glamorous position to occupy. But in the last week, Che-Hsuan Lin has turned defensive excellence into an international phenomenon.

The outfielder has long received raves for the way he’s played outfield — primarily center field — while coming up through the ranks of the Red Sox farm system. He has great instincts for the ball, both in his jumps and his direct routes to exactly where the ball will fall to the earth, and the closing speed to roar across the outfield to vacuum an inordinate number of fly balls. Of course, there are those who would suggest that his ability to track balls is second only to the howitzer that is attached to his right shoulder.

“He’s got a cannon of an arm,” said Daniel Nava, who has played with Lin in three of the last four seasons in the minors. “He’s one of the best [outfielders] I’ve seen. He takes some routes on the ball that are pretty impressive. How he catches balls and the arm strength he has, arm strength and accuracy is pretty impressive. … He’s got one of the best [arms] I’ve seen.”

A number of those skills have earned Lin the international limelight in recent days. While with Triple-A Pawtucket, he made a pair of spectacular catches — one against the wall in center field, another while racing across right field and diving — against Hideki Matsui, thus ensuring that he would earn plenty of attention from the significant Japanese media contingent tracking the international superstar.

“When I was playing defense out there I didn’€™t think about who he is,” Lin explained through translator Mickey Jiang. “I got a good jump that day and I tracked that ball down and luckily I caught that ball.”

When the Red Sox called him up to the big leagues on Sunday, it commanded the attention of a Taiwanese media following, which stayed with Lin through the series in Baltimore and talked with him on a daily basis.

And then, finally, Lin won the attention of New Englanders with his contributions during the Orioles series. He collected his first big league hit on Tuesday, and then made a game-saving catch as a defensive replacement for Adrian Gonzalez in the eighth inning of Wednesday’s game. After entering the game in the seventh, he made a spectacular diving grab of a Wilson Betemit blooper with runners on second and third and one out in the eighth, turning a potential two-run single into a sac fly and a pivotal out.

It was a spectacular play in which Lin bolted seemingly from nowhere to snare the ball and save the game. The feat may have earned him a particular role.

“Playing just like that might be the perfect timing, time for him,” said manager Bobby Valentine. “He’€™s like a reliever who comes in with a lead, the way I look at him.’€

Of course, Lin does not want to be known solely for defensive excellence. His defense and speed make it likely that he can secure a role in the majors at some point as at least a role player who can serve as a defensive specialist and pinch-runner. But his offense will determine whether he can be something more than that.

And in that regard, he’s shown progress this season. A year go, he struggled after an early-season promotion from Double-A Portland (where he hit .268 with a .373 OBP, .333 slugging mark and .706 OPS) to Triple-A Pawtucket (where he had below-average marks of .235/.325/.293/.618 in 85 games while delivering just one extra-base hit every 27.0 plate appearances). This year, he has shown improved power (one extra-base hit every 16.3 plate appearances), walked more (20 times) than he has struck out (17) and forged a line of .256/.356/.360/.716.

Those numbers are short of spectacular, but make it clear that there has been improvement for the 23-year-old.

“It’€™s different from last year,” said Lin. “I’ve made some adjustments with my hitting approach and instead of trying to get on base with a base on balls, this year I’ve been more aggressive and I think this new approach seems to have worked out so far.”

If he continues to show progress in that regard, he could secure a more significant big league future. For now, however, he can already lay claim to the title of one of the best-known specialists in the world, with his reputation extending to at least three countries thanks to his recent feats.

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