FORT MYERS, Fla. -- This is what a baseball player should look like.
Grady Sizemore returned to the Red Sox clubhouse on Wednesday afternoon bathed in the dirt accumulated over nine eventful innings of a game played without restraint. He singled to right in the first inning and, when Orioles right fielder Henry Urrutia (playing shallow at the position) bobbled the ball momentarily, opened the jets and steamed towards second, diving into the bag. Though Sizemore was ruled out (a questionable call), this was a player who was operating without hesitation.
That notion was reinforced further by his diving catch in the top of the second and again when, after he arrived at first base on an eighth-inning fielder's choice, he was green-lighted for a steal (though with right-hander Ryan Webb holding him closely, the opportunity to take off didn't present itself).
There was a point where the Sox were proceeding with caution on Sizemore. No longer.
"We’ve talked about it as we’ve progressed through camp. Early on, we didn’t want any added attempts [for extra bases]," said Sox manager John Farrell. "And then once he was coming out of games feeling good physically, we started to loosen the reins on that and today, that aggressiveness is becoming a little more evident."
His spring progression has been something of a marvel to behold. After all, after he went 2 1/2 years since playing a game, entering spring training, no one had any idea what kind of player Sizemore might be.
It wasn't just that Sizemore hadn't played in a game. He hadn't even been able to swing a bat for most of his hiatus from the game in 2012 and 2013. When he arrived in spring training, even the outfielder possessed little idea of what might happen once he faced live pitching.
He recalled hitting in the batting cages a couple times a week while trying to rehab with the Indians in 2012, then didn't swing at all during the 2013 season when he rehabbed while out of the game. He first resumed swinging this past November while at Athletes' Performance, taking batting practice in a cage a couple of times a week when he could find an available intern to throw to him. It was hardly the sort of work that permitted him any sense of where his swing mechanics or timing might be.
And so, even for Sizemore, the spring has been a revelation.
"I didn't swing too much because I knew once I got here it would tell me more about my swing," said Sizemore. "You can swing all day in the cage and have a good swing, but once you get out here, everything kind of changes. My focus was more on just getting healthy than the baseball side of things.
"There's really not a lot you can do [to prepare] when you haven't played for two years. You can hit all you want in the cage, but until you get on a field where you're taking B.P. every day, seeing live pitching, there's not much you can simulate," he added. "I didn't know how it was going to feel early on."
No one did, including the team that signed him.
Even while the Sox believed that there was the potential for impact, the possibility that Sizemore would never again be ready to perform at a major league level was real. After all, baseball is a game predicated on routine, where players assume a metronomic schedule starting in the earliest days of spring.
Players need their regimented workouts to put themselves in a physical position to play at a high level, require their daily time swinging the bat -- whether in the cage or on the field -- to train their eyes and hands to cooperate in a fashion that, even if successful, yields failure in roughly 70 percent of at-bats.
It would not have been shocking had Sizemore seemed stiffer than the Tin Man at the plate. But his athleticism and instincts defied that possibility. From the earliest days of the spring, his swing has looked smooth and familiar.
Of course, it was one thing for him to show that stroke in batting practice against 70 mph meatballs. The eye-opener has occurred over four weeks' worth of games, in which Sizemore's hand-eye coordination has consistently permitted him to recognize pitches and connect to them with his barrel to make solid contact.
After his 1-for-3 day with a single and walk on Wednesday, he is now hitting .306 with a .342 OBP and .417 slugging mark in 38 plate appearances this spring. But perhaps more notable is the fact that he's struck out just four times all spring, with hitting coach Greg Colbrunn estimating that he's swung and missed no more than a handful of times.
Right now, his ability to get the barrel on the ball seems instinctual. He is attacking pitches all over the strike zone rather than displaying the selectivity that characterized him at his best.
Still, he's recognizing balls and strikes well and increasingly has shown an ability to differentiate those balls that he can spray all over the field versus those that he can drive, foremost on Tuesday when, in the first of the three-game physical stress test that will offer the final determination of whether he's ready for the big leagues, he unloaded on a first-pitch fastball from Rays left-hander Cesar Ramos and drove it well over the fence in right.
"I feel like I'm seeing the ball well. Timing is still coming around," said Sizemore. "Every day I get out there it feels better and better. I just continue to try to build off of things, continue to try to put good at-bats together."
"For a guy who hasn't played in two years, [his approach has] come a long way," added Coblrunn. "[He has a] timing mechanism, but his mechanics and everything are pretty simple, pretty short and he repeats them. It seems like pitch recognition and the speed of the game, it doesn't look like he's missed a beat."
Indeed, there is a familiar fluidity to his game at the plate. While Sizemore has a slightly different timing mechanism than Jacoby Ellsbury, his bat path through the strike zone, noted teammate Shane Victorino, looks uncannily similar to that of longtime Sox center fielder and current Yankees outfielder.
That's not to say that Sizemore will be able to replicate Ellsbury's overall production in 2014. He won't match the 50-plus steals that Ellsbury contributed last year; for that matter, it would be surprising if he ever returned to the 30-steal plateau that he once reached routinely.
Defensively, his many surgeries have turned him from a two-time Gold Glove center fielder who was Ellsbury's defensive equal (and arguably superior) to a player who, in the eyes of Farrell, has handled the position capably if less spectacularly than in his prime.
"He's made some plays that have been well above average. He's certainly covered the ground without issue, with the opportunities to date," said Farrell. "So far, he's looked fine."
Meanwhile, there is still a considerable degree of the unknown, particularly given that, while Sizemore has given every indication of being physically prepared for the start of the 2014 season, no one can say how he will hold up over the course of it.
Yet while those uncertainties will loom, they are not reflections of what the outfielder has shown to date. He has not looked like a player who last played a game 30 months ago, or like the imposter version of Sizemore who hit .220/.280/.379 with four steals in 104 games over the 2010 and 2011 seasons.
"To go 2 1/2 years without doing anything and you have one month to get back into that before the season starts, to do what he's done ..." Shane Victorino marveled. "Wow.
"The part that shocks me is being physically able to do what he's doing, whether making a play in center field or running the bases like he's doing. That to me is amazing how you can go 2 1/2 years without that and come back and do what he's doing."
What he's doing has raised a fascinating and somewhat unknowable question: What can he do?
The absence of comparable players makes it almost impossible to predict. The instances of players coming back from two or more full years without game action are few, though there are scattered causes of optimism in players like Angels slugger Josh Hamiton, Braves catcher Evan Gattis and the World War II veterans who returned from their sabbaticals to reclaim stature among the best players in the game. Their timing and instincts did not betray them; nor, it appears, did Sizemore's.
Given that it's been six years since Sizemore laid claim to the title of an elite player, the Sox are cautious about setting the bar too high. But even as they resist the temptation to hope that he can reclaim star-caliber offensive abilities, the idea of Sizemore as a player who slots comfortably into the top of the lineup (thus permitting the rest of the Sox players to slot into more comfortable spots in the order) and who might be able to post a batting average in the mid- to high .200s with a better-than-league-average on-base percentage would suggest a tremendous asset to the team and a tremendous accomplishment by Sizemore.
"What he brings to the table, none of us expect him as an organization, we're not expecting what he's done when he was one of the best players in the league," said Colbrunn. "Just go out there and continue to get better and better. It's fun to watch to be honest. We just expect him to go out there and be who he is."
For the Sox in March of 2014, who Sizemore is has been little short of a source of astonishment. The final decision about whether Sizemore or Jackie Bradley Jr. will be the team's Opening Day center fielder has yet to be made, but for now, the fact that Sizemore has forced the debate to remain open into the final days of the spring is in its own right a remarkable development.