Mookie Betts strolled to home plate leading off the bottom of the first inning Saturday at McCoy Stadium, greeted with “Welcome to the Jungle” playing over the loudspeakers, and a blinding, setting sun in left. There was no noticeable, juiced-up applause to welcome the Red Sox wunderkind to Pawtucket, where “Star Wars Night” created a parking headache and healthy amount of uninhabited green and red box seats.
“C’mon, Mookie,” one fan shouted from somewhere behind home plate. Otherwise, a smattering of applause in the moment, nothing special for a kid who may just be strolling through a Triple-A town for a visit.
The Red Sox wunderkind worked a walk off Louisville Bats starter Jair Jurrjens, but would be quiet the rest of the night, 0-for-3 in the PawSox’ 7-2 win, a game which saw pitching prospect Matt Barnes look capable (6 2/3 innings, seven hits, two earned runs) after weeks of whiplash on the mound.
But there were no fireworks – unless you count the unrelated, post-game show – for Betts in his McCoy debut.
As the parent club that Betts hopes to make at some point this season continued its dive into obscurity Saturday night, 8-6 losers in Detroit, Boston’s fifth-straight defeat, Betts patrolled center field like a beacon of hope in front of the Benny’s billboard at McCoy. Five games into his Triple-A career, after getting called up from Double-A Portland earlier last week, Betts is hitting .286 with an .804 OPS, and one home run, a game-winning, extra-inning shot in his second game with the PawSox on Wednesday.
“Just last year, I was in [Class A] Greenville,” he told the Globe last week. “It’s like I’ve put on every jersey since. It’s kind of weird, but a blessing at the same time.”
Betts is only 21 years old, and on a meteoric rise through the Red Sox farm system, but to assume he’s the key to Boston fixing its historically bad outfield issues is grasping at best-case scenarios. For starters, the PawSox are playing him both at second base and the outfield, where Betts plays like a teenager with his driving permit, as the Providence Journal’s Tim Britton described it. “He gets from point A to point B, but there are moments of trepidation along the way,” Britton wrote. “He’ll get there; it’s just going to take practice.”
He’s also twenty-one years old. It’s sometimes difficult to remember that Xander Bogaerts, also only that of legal drinking age, is the exception, not the norm.
If the Red Sox do indeed play themselves out of contention, and that work is being done on an effective, daily basis, Betts’ call-up is an inevitability by August, much like Bogaerts’ own last season, as long as he performs at the Triple-A level. But there’s no guarantee whether Betts will be more Bogaerts or Jackie Bradley, Jr. by the time he arrives.
The Red Sox’ fifth-round draft pick in 2011 has hit .311 over four years in the minor leagues, and his 66-game on-base streak helped highlight his best season, hitting .355 with six home runs, 34 runs batted in, and a .994 OPS for the Sea Dogs. That earned him last week’s promotion, and brought Red Sox fans to another level of intrigue as they await another promising tool to arise in a system seemingly bursting with potential.
“At some point, we have an obligation to challenge our young players when they are performing at a level where it’s not certain that they’re being challenged,” Cherington told the Journal. “You look at his performance over the course of the season to date, and he’s really excelled in every area of the game. That’s been going on.”
If there is a fair comparison to make with Betts and Bogaerts, it might be their approaches. While Bogaerts carries the air of a veteran player, Betts seemingly sees the challenges in front of him and embraces them. “It’s definitely different,” he said, “and I’m here like I have no idea what goes on.”
If part of a player’s rise through the minors is in order to hone one’s baseball skills, another matter is welcoming the young player into a world which they no longer dominate. If Bogaerts’ performance at the plate this season somehow doesn’t impress, his attitude about the magnitude of what’s happening in his career at such a young age is indeed an eye-opening asset. Betts seems to be taking a similar approach.
“He’s a mature kid and he’s handled the accelerated progression pretty well,” said director of player development Ben Crockett. “Each time he’s been faced with a new challenge, whether it’s moving to a new level or whether it’s going to play against a lot of older players out in the Arizona Fall League or whether it’s heading over to a game in spring training, he’s found himself comfortable in those environments, and I think that’s what’s really allowed him to succeed.”
On Saturday, Shannon Wilkerson made the final out of the eighth inning for Pawtucket, headed to the ninth up by five, and denying the crowd at McCoy one more look at Betts, who was due up next in the inning. On this night Carlos Rivero (3-for-4, five runs bated in) was the offensive hero, leaving Betts and fellow fan focal point Garin Cecchini a combined 0-for-5 in the top two slots of the lineup.
Brock Holt and Bogaerts were 4-for-10 in the same two slots in Detroit. The Red Sox are 7-15 in their last 22 games.
Betts will get his greeting at Fenway Park sooner rather than later, and with the Red Sox possibly approaching the July 31 trading deadline as sellers, there could be room for both Betts and Cecchini to get extended looks.
For now, he’s just another burgeoning player surrounded by an aura of tantalizing potential.
“What an exciting player,” PawSox manager Kevin Boles said. “He can do something at any moment. You can’t go wrong with having an athlete like him.”