Boston’s offense may have posted six unanswered runs in the final two innings of the 6-5 win over the Detroit Tigers in Game 2, but before that, it was scuffling—big time.
Through the first 14 innings of the series, Red Sox hitters were a combined 1-for-44 with 26 strikeouts. Of course, that one, measly hit came courtesy of Daniel Nava with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 1, spoiling the prospects of a Tigers combined no-hitter. Overall, Boston’s 32 strikeouts through the first two games of the ALCS is a Major League record.
And with former AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander set to take the mound as the series heads back to Detroit tied at one game apiece, things aren’t about to get any easier.
At the heart of Boston’s recent offensive woes has been third baseman Will Middlebrooks, who is only 1-for-6 in the series and 2-for-17 with one RBI on the postseason. However, his one hit against the Tigers was a big one, as the 25-year-old laced a double down the left field line to ignite the late-inning rally in Game 2.
Middlebrooks’ ongoing struggles at the plate have resulted in growing support for top prospect Xander Bogaerts to spell him at the hot corner.
Called up in late August after a stellar season split between Double- and Triple-A, Bogaerts appeared in 18 games for the Red Sox down the stretch of the regular season, batting .250/.320/.364 with three extra-base hits and five RBI.
Boston’s decision to include the 21-year-old on its postseason roster was somewhat surprising given his lack of experience. However, that’s a testament to his enormous upside and potential to impact a five- or seven-game series.
Bogaerts failed to log an at-bat in the ALDS against the Tampa Bay Rays despite appearing in two games off the bench, but he played a significant role in the deciding Game 4 with a pair of walks and two runs scored as a late-inning replacement. The second run he scored came on a wild pitch in the seventh inning and tied the game.
His lone at-bat of the ALCS came in Game 1, as the youngster stepped to the plate representing the winning run following Daniel Nava’s single to end the Tigers’ no-hit bid with two outs in the ninth inning.
Facing Tigers closer Joaquin Benoit, Bogaerts took the right-hander seven pitches deep into the at-bat, fouling off several tough pitches before popping out on a full-count changeup to finalize the Red Sox’ 1-0 loss. However, for anyone who watched the at-bat, it was much more than a game-ending pop-out.
Bogaerts looked confident throughout the entire at-bat despite the unquantifiable pressure of having to succeed with the game on the line. He spit on several close pitches early in the count—pitches one would expect a young, inexperienced hitter to flail at given the circumstances—and then fouled off a good slider from Benoit. Plus, he held in there long enough to allow pinch runner Quintin Berry to steal second base and get in scoring position.
In speaking with WEEI.com’s Alex Speier about the at-bat, Bogaerts had this to say:
I definitely feel like I’ve learned from that at-bat till now. I think my confidence has grown so much. Laying off so many tough pitches against a good closer like that in a big situation, my confidence level is pretty high for the next time up. I think he only threw me like two fastballs—first pitch for a strike and then all off-speed. I laid off some tough pitches. If I get him back I’ll probably do damage to him because I probably know what he has now.
In a big situation like that, to be under control, lay off some tough pitches like that, it wasn’t easy. I’m really happy with myself for that. [It was a] good at-bat. I laid off some tough pitches that he threw me, some good pitches. He had a slider but I think it was more like a cutter because it cut too fast. Good game, tough loss but we’ll bounce back tomorrow.
As you can infer from the confidence and clarity with which he describes the most pressure-filled moment of his career, Bogaerts’ ability to control and slow down the game at such a young age is special.
In speaking with MLB.com’s Ian Browne following Game 2, Boston manager John Farrell couldn’t help but be impressed with poise exhibited by the 21-year-old:
And it was probably right in line with the other at-bats he's had this year. There's a presence and there's a calmness to it. To me, when he laid off the split from Benoit, I felt like at that point, we've got a chance to get a base hit here. He didn't chase. He didn't show any antsiness or jumpiness in the box, and it goes back to him just being under control.
Boagerts stepped to the plate knowing that Benoit, an experienced closer, would challenge his patience and try to get the should-be overanxious youngster to jump at pitches early in the at-bat and dig himself a quick hole. Not so fast. Bogaerts took the first two pitches of the at-bat, the second being a hittable fastball over the heart of the plate that he passed on to let Berry swipe second base.
Bogaerts broke down the at-bat with Speier:
Berry’s got to get in scoring position. I can’t go up there, swing and get a foul ball or ground ball and he’s not in scoring position. [But] that was a really good pitch to hit, man—a fastball, just had to let it go. [It was] one of the two fastballs. The first was a ball and that was right down the middle. But he left to steal, so I had to let it pass so he could be in scoring position. That was definitely the pitch that I missed, so it’s all right. [But then Benoit's] 3-2 changeup, that’s pretty tough.
Should Xander Bogaerts start over Will Middlebrooks?
While Bogaerts hasn’t had the chance to shine on the field this October, all signs point to him being ready to do so.
Will Middlebrooks likely earned a reprieve from a Game 3 benching with his eighth-inning double on Sunday night, but if his struggles continue and the series quickly shifts in Detroit’s favor, expect Farrell to get the 21-year-old phenom in the lineup.