KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Andrelton Simmons headed off on his longest road trip of the season.
The Atlanta Braves' young shortstop talked his way into the lineup for Saturday's exhibition game against the New York Yankees. But he was scheduled to leave in the evening on a 20-hour trip to Taiwan, where he will join the Netherlands for the upcoming World Baseball Classic.
"I want to go," Simmons said before the game. "At the same time, I don't want to leave."
A 23-year-old native of Curacao, Simmons is already being called one of the top defensive shortstops in the game, and he's taking on a new role with the Braves this season — leadoff hitter.
"He's a superstar in the making," Atlanta pitcher Tim Hudson said.
A year ago, Simmons dazzled in spring training, nearly winning a starting job even though he had never played above Class A. After a short stint in Double-A, he was called up to the Braves and made an immediate contribution with his glove, which was expected, and at the plate, which was a bit of a surprise.
He batted .289 with three homers and 19 RBIs, enough to persuade the Braves he could handle the leadoff spot when all the other possible options for replacing free agent Michael Bourn fell through.
Simmons got some experience batting in the top spot during his brief time in the minors, so he's not expecting much of an adjustment.
"I've hit there before, so it's not anything special," he said. "I've got some good guys hitting behind me, so I should get a lot of good pitches to hit, a lot of fastballs. I just have to let the other guys know what I see."
Defense is where Simmons really shines. He has remarkable range, getting to balls that most fielders can't even touch, and he throws about as hard as any pitcher.
"I enjoy it. I take pride in it," Simmons said. "I don't want to say I like it more than hitting. I still like hitting, too. But there's something about playing defense, having that pride that nothing goes by you. I like that people notice that sometimes. But nobody has a higher standard than myself about what I should do and can do, on defense especially.
"If I dive and miss a ball by this much," he added, holding two fingers about an inch apart, "I'm going to want to see why I didn't get it and what I should have done to get it."
He's watched videos of Ozzie Smith, generally considered the greatest defensive shortstop to play the game, and hopes to model his career along the same lines. Simmons would even like to take a shot at duplicating what was perhaps Smith's most famous play, a bad-hop grounder that he still managed to field with his bare hand.
"That was crazy," Simmons marveled. "It's just instincts, shortstop instincts. You've either got it or you don't."
The only drawback to his rookie season was a broken finger on his throwing hand, which he sustained on a headfirst slide. The injury kept him out for two months.
While Simmons plans to be more judicious about sliding hands first, he's not going to eliminate it from his repertoire.
"You've just got to pick your spots when to be more aggressive," he said. "But I can't just stop playing hard."
Simmons played six innings in Saturday's 8-3 loss to the Yankees, going hitless in three at-bats. He popped into the clubhouse to shower and change, then gathered what he needed for the long flight to Asia.
"I've tried getting myself tired," he said. "I hope that's going to help me sleep on the plane."