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Xander Bogaerts's debut was inauspicious -- just like those of so many Red Sox greats

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  August 21, 2013 04:49 PM

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A ground ball to second base, 4-3 in the scorebook. The Red Sox shortstop of the future grounding to Marco Scutaro, a Red Sox shortstop of the past.

Three runners stranded. Third out of the inning. And on to the bottom of the first ...

So that's how the story began for Xander Bogaerts, major leaguer. A routine out in a loss that was anything but routine.

When Brayan Villarreal walked in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth -- as curious a combination of pitcher/situation as you will ever witness that doesn't involve Grady Little -- Bogaerts's debut was relegated to a sidebar.

His night's work was long complete by then; he had been removed in a double switch in the sixth inning, finishing without a hit in three plate appearances. It was on defense that Bogaerts, who may or may not grow out of the shortstop position, made more of an impression.

He got his first big-league grass stain diving for a foul pop well out of his reach in the first inning. He got turned the wrong way on a soft single over his head. He dove, Manny-style, to cut off a Shane Victorino throw.

And he made a sensational play to charge a slow roller and nip the foolishly diving Scutaro for the third out of the fifth inning, leaving the tying run on third base. No, they did not trade the wrong guy, all of you Jose Iglesias-adoring jokesters and loons.

Bogaerts is the most justifiably touted Red Sox prospect in years, perhaps decades. He's 20 years old, plays a premium defensive position, and has slugged his way through the minor leagues with nary a hiccup. His Triple A manager, Gary DiSarcina, preaches caution, then inevitably shakes his head, smiles, and compares him to Mike Trout.

He looked like a raw and nervous rookie last night. He won't look that way for long, and he wouldn't look that way now had they brought him up at the right time -- about three weeks ago.

Perhaps Bogaerts did not have the most auspicious debut. No surprise and no worries -- it actually puts him in some pretty fair company in Red Sox lore.

In his first at-bat on Opening Day 1939, Ted Williams, batting sixth,
struck out against the Yankees' Red Ruffing
. He finished his debut 1 for 4 with a double and two strikeouts. Three games later, he went 4 for 5, raising his batting average to .444. He became quite good.

yazfinn820.JPGTwenty-two Opening Days later, Williams's successor, Carl Yastrzemski, singled to left field off Kansas City A's starter Ray Herbert in his first trip to the plate at Fenway Park.

Tony Conigliaro -- darling, doomed Tony C -- hit into a double play against the great lefty Whitey Ford on Opening Day 1964 at Yankee Stadium. The wait for his first homer wouldn't be long -- it came in his first at-bat the next day at Fenway.

I'm curious as to how much hype surrounded Tony C for his '64 debut. He rocketed through the Red Sox system, of course, and his exploits were already well-known in Swampscott and at St. Mary's of Lynn. Those who knew the local boy then surely knew he'd make good.

But there was no Baseball America in those days, no Top 100 prospect lists and keeper leagues, so there was probably much more mystery around his arrival than there is for a prospect like Bogaerts, whose strengths and flaws and projections were already common knowledge to studied baseball fans before he even hit Pawtucket.

ricejim74finn820.JPGWhat did we know about Jim Rice 39 years ago upon his arrival? What did the scouts say? Looking back, he surely must have been considered elite.

At age 21, he locked up the International League Triple Crown by hitting .337 with 25 homers and 93 RBIs at Pawtucket, then made the leap to the big club in August 1974. He debuted on the 19th, batting sixth as the designated hitter and grounding out to first base in the second inning against Chicago's Jim Kaat. Coolest thing about that game? Dick Allen hit leadoff for the White Sox.

Three weeks later, Rice's fellow Gold Dust Twin, Fred Lynn, passed his first at-bat by grounding to second base against the Brewers' Bill Champion, a journeyman whose name was an exaggeration of his skills.

And Dwight Evans, the third member of that brilliant home-grown '70s Red Sox outfield and, in retrospect, perhaps the best prospect of the three given his arrival at age 20? He accomplished something truly memorable in a 10-0 win over the Indians on Sept. 16, 1972. In his first trip to the plate, he batted out of turn. The detailed explanation can be found at the end of this post.

In terms of role and situation if not skill set, Bogaerts in 2013 is the most similar to Evans in 1972, a player young for his league but with such obvious talent that he forced his way onto the big-league roster during a pennant race. Evans, after hitting .300 with an .891 OPS, 90 walks, and 17 homers at Triple A Louisville, had 64 plate appearances in the big leagues during the Sox' ill-fated push for the AL East title.

He hit .263 with a .747 OPS, more than competent production. Looking at what he accomplished at such a young age in the minors, plus his otherworldly throwing arm, I wonder if he was the best prospect the Red Sox have ever had since the draft was implemented.

It is Hanley Ramirez, and not Evans, who is the easiest comp for Bogaerts because of a similar ascent and skill set. Bogaerts has already had more at-bats as a Red Sox player than did Ramirez, who whiffed in his only two at-bats for the franchise in 2005, the first coming Sept. 20 against Tampa Bay's Tim Corcoran late in a 15-2 win. The next season, as a Marlin, he was the National League Rookie of the Year.

boggswadepawsox821.JPGWade Boggs, after roughly 10 years and 3,000 opposite-field singles at Pawtucket, got his first big-league at-bat during Game 2 of the '82 season. He grounded to the Baltimore pitcher, Dennis Martinez, then didn't start again for 14 games. The Sox really didn't know what they had, did they?

Baseball-reference.com informs us that Nomar Garciaparra's first at-bat, on Aug. 31, 1996, was a lineout to deep left-center against Oakland's Willie Adams. Over the next few seasons, it would seem every Nomah! at-bat culminated with a liner to deep left-center, in the gap, off the wall, or over the screen.

I suppose that with all of these interspersed references to the debuts of Red Sox greats, I'm obligated to include one cautionary tale. I don't think it's necessary -- as you've probably gathered if you've poked around this space the past few weeks, I believe in Bogaerts the way I believe in pizza -- but here you go anyway:

Batting second against the Orioles' Mike Flanagan on Sept. 18, 1977, Ted Cox went single, walk, single, then singled and doubled against Scott McGregor. He'd have hits in his first two at-bats the next day, making him 6 for 6 to start his career. He'd have 15 more hits with the Sox, and just 168 more in the majors.

Cox was a flash, a flawed prospect the Red Sox happily traded to the Indians in a package for young ace Dennis Eckersley. He did not have Bogaerts's pedigree or promise, although he did have Ted Williams's seal of approval.

Cox was a brief, fun surprise. He wasn't a genuine phenom, like Bogaerts. And save for that moment when a championship is clinched, there's nothing more fun in baseball than watching the debut of a once-in-a-generation prospect.

Xander Bogaerts played his first game for the Red Sox last night, and while he didn't do much that was memorable, it was the first scene of what should be a wonderful movie.

The anticipation of his arrival was half the fun. The other half? That's to come. Great expectations aren't fulfilled in a day. Good thing we have the next dozen years or so.

* * *

AND NOW, FOR RETROSHEET'S VERBATIM EXPLANATION OF DWIGHT EVANS'S WEIRD FIRST AT-BAT IN THE MAJOR LEAGUES

evansdwightfinn820.JPGDwight Evans made his major league debut in the bottom of the sixth inning against the Cleveland Indians when he pinch ran for Reggie Smith. The Red Sox were leading at the time, 9-0 and Cecil Cooper had already been placed in the game as a pinch runner for Carl Yastrzemski. Yaz was batting third and Smith fourth in the original lineup. In the top of the seventh, both Cooper and Evans stayed in the game and three other defensive replacements were made by manager Eddie Kasko. With one out in the bottom of the eighth inning, Evans batted in Cooper's spot but flew out. No protest was made by the Indians. The next legal batter should have been Phil Gagliano but Cooper came to the plate and also made an out to end the inning and the Sox went on to win 10-0. Thus, Dwight Evans' first major league plate appearance was out of order!

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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