FORT MYERS, Fla. — Rafael Devers is one of the youngest regulars in major league baseball, having turned 22 Oct. 24, which also happened to be the date of Game 2 of the World Series.
Devers played in 121 games as a rookie for the Red Sox last season. Only the Braves’ Ozzie Albies (158) and the Yankees’ Gleyber Torres (123) played more games in 2018 at age 21 or younger.
So it was curious to hear manager Alex Cora say on Wednesday that Devers looks younger this year — and mean it as a compliment.
“He does look younger,’’ said Cora, noting that Devers has a new hairstyle. “He looks taller, too. I’m not saying he looked older with the hair he had last year. But he looks younger.’’
The manager’s comment seemed a further acknowledgment that Devers has come into camp in much better shape, which the Red Sox hope is a sign of maturity even if it’s given him a more youthful look.
In a small sample this spring, Devers has hit like an established middle-of-the-order batter. He’s batting .500 (8 for 16, 1 home run) after Wednesday’s 0 for 2 in a 6-1 loss to the Pirates. He hit third behind Andrew Benintendi and Mookie Betts in a lineup that featured all of the regulars other than J.D. Martinez.
“I’m going to challenge him,’’ Cora said of Devers. “It doesn’t mean he’s going to hit third during the season. But I’ve talked to him about it. He knows what he wants, he wants to hit in the middle of the lineup.’’
Cora has been impressed with what he has seen, not just in the results but the process. He noted the lefthanded-hitting Devers has been resilient against lefthanded pitchers, including a single on an 0-and-2 count against the Mets’ Steven Matz on Monday.
“Offensively, he’s in a good place. He’s not swinging so hard, he’s under control, he’s grounded, good balance, swinging at good pitches,’’ said Cora.
Cora recently noted that if Devers can break through this year similar to the way the Yankees’ Miguel Andujar did last season, a Red Sox lineup that led the majors with 876 runs in 2018 could be even deeper. Andujar, who turned 24 last Saturday, hit .297 with an .855 OPS and 27 home runs last season.
“People made a big deal when I mentioned Andujar,’’ said Cora. “I’m not saying be Andujar. I want him to be Devers. But he can have a year like Andujar, you know what I mean?’’
Tyler Thornburg’s enigmatic spring continued with an inning against the Pirates. The 30-year-old reliever, who ostensibly has a chance to seize a role in the Craig Kimbrel-less bullpen, allowed two hits, two walks, and a run after relieving starter Josh Smith to start the third.
Thornburg, who had a 5.63 ERA in 25 appearances for the Red Sox last season after missing the 2017 season following surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome, has allowed six hits, two walks, and four earned runs in three innings over three appearances this spring.
The enigmatic part? His velocity has been up into the mid-90s and his stuff reportedly has been sharper, yet the results aren’t there.
“Not bad. OK,’’ said Thornburg when asked how he felt after the appearance. “I’m a little weirded out, actually, because I’ve never really thrown this hard in the spring.’’
Thornburg acknowledged that he catches himself looking at the radar gun readings, but not for the obvious reason.
“I do every now and then, but a lot of it is on the offspeed pitches,’’ he said. “I just want to make sure I’m taking enough off it.’’
Cora said Thornburg will have a couple of more appearances to try to get results.
“The lineups are going to be get better, which I’m looking forward to,’’ said Cora. “But as far as his stuff now, I’m happy with that.’’
Chris Sale and Nathan Eovaldi took another step toward their spring debuts, throwing live batting practice to minor league hitters on a back field a couple of hours before the game. While fellow starters Rick Porcello, who threw live BP Monday, David Price, and Eduardo Rodriguez, as well as Pedro Martinez, were among the onlookers, Sale and Eovaldi alternated half-innings.
Only Rodriguez has pitched in a game this spring, with Cora choosing to ease in his established starters — all of whom carried a major workload through the postseason — just as he did last spring.
“They haven’t been on the big field, but they’ve done their work,’’ said Cora. “They’re going at it 80-85 percent. One thing is for sure, when they pitch on that big field, whether it’s the Pirates or Tampa or whoever, it could be a college team, they’ll go 100 percent. So we have to take care of them, and this is the way we do it.’’
Porcello will start Sunday against the Rays, Sale gets the ball for a minor league start on Monday’s offday, Price goes Tuesday against the Tigers, and then Eovaldi will get his turn Wednesday against the Twins.
Dustin Pedroia, limited to just three games last season because of a knee injury, will play second base Thursday against the Twins. Cora said the plan is for Pedroia to get one at-bat and play two defensive innings in his spring debut. Cora said it’s not necessarily important for Pedroia to get through a full nine-inning game during spring training to prove his readiness for the season. “He doesn’t need to play nine here,’’ said Cora. “If he’s ready to go, he’s ready to go.’’ . . . Cora said reliever Ryan Brasier will throw a bullpen session Thursday and should be ready to pitch live batting practice “sooner rather than later.’’ Brasier has been sidelined by an infected toe.