Even as the Red Sox flounder, Xander Bogaerts is becoming an invaluable leader

The shortstop signed on long-term in April and has wasted little time making his presence felt.

Xander Bogaerts
Xander Bogaerts won't be an All-Star starter this year, but he's arguably the best shortstop in the American League. –Nick Wass / The Associated Press

COMMENTARY

You can say a lot of things about the 2019 Red Sox. One of the more positive sentiments is that this is becoming Xander Bogaerts’s team.

Now past its midway point, feeling at a break thanks to these two days before the London games, this season has somehow been both hard to fathom and easy to understand. World Series hangovers are common, as Livin’ His Dream Lobsterman John Farrell asserted in the Globe. Team construction this year was less about winning a title and more about trying to sneak out another under the luxury tax.

The 2019 Red Sox find a way to win a game like Monday’s, with six one-run innings to erase three Chicago leads, but just as regularly find a way to lose a game like Wednesday’s, clawing back from 3-0 down in the first and 6-3 down in the seventh only to hand the game back lickety split in the ninth.

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“The only mistake I made was the one [Jose Abreu] hit. It’s unfortunate,” said Matt Barnes, whose 14th outing in 25 games this month went single, single, Jose Abreu home run — 23 pitches, three rockets, earned runs No. 10 and 11 in June. “I executed damn near every single pitch that I wanted to, and the one that didn’t get there, he hit a home run. So that’s tough to swallow when you execute 90 percent of the time and the one time costs you the game.”

Seventeen relievers have made at least 12 appearances in June. Three are Red Sox: Barnes (MLB-leading 14, with a 7.81 ERA despite fanning 22 in 12 2/3 innings), Brandon Workman (13, giving him the AL appearance lead with 40), and Marcus Walden (12, with nine coming in the seventh or earlier). They’ve converted three of nine saves opportunities.

And they’re the guys Alex Cora trusts.

“I know usage is there, but everybody’s being used a lot,” Cora said Wednesday, the same day Steven Wright’s season debut was 18 pitches in a scoreless eighth. “We’ve just got to get the job done.”

Nine minutes after his Red Sox fell to 20-20 at home, they fell nine games behind the Yankees when New York turned a Chris Sale-like bad start from James Paxton and a Barnes-like blown save from Zack Britton into a walk-off win to cap a 9-1 homestand. Fangraphs still pegs the Sox a 90-win team and 60-plus percent to make the playoffs, and maybe the best thing that could happen to this bunch would be a win-or-go-home afternoon at Tropicana Field …

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Enough about that. I’m not confident I can tell you about this team’s appearance three-and-a-half innings from now, nevermind three-and-a-half months.

Back to Bogaerts, and not even because it was his two-run single in the eighth that should have made Wednesday another uplifting getaway day. Because of something he said before Tuesday’s game, in which he had an ugly defensive night, but made some amends with a two-run homer while Rafael Devers with 4 for 4.

“Maybe I could do a little more,” Bogaerts said, “and probably the standings would have been a bit different.”

It’s something, as Cora noted, a team leader says. It’s fitting, too, given what we’ve seen from Bogaerts in the three months since his six-year, $120 million extension locked him in as part of the team’s core going forward: The team lead in doubles, extra-base hits, RBI, wRC+, and Fangraphs’ WAR. A two-strike hitter almost without peer. The AL lead among shortstops in just about every big offensive category: Hits, doubles, extra-base hits, walks, RBI, runs, on-base, OPS … his finish outside the top five, nevermind the top three, in All-Star voting is as absurdist as the idea he needs to do more. (Bogaerts is clearly steamed about the All-Star snub and has every right to be.)

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More than that, though, it’s the way he’s taken Devers — having a career year of his own at 22 — and, to a lesser degree, Michael Chavis under his wing.

“Just trying to show them the right way to do things and keep yourself out of trouble,” he said. “When I came up, we had a lot of veterans that were hard on us, and I enjoyed it. I kind of learned the right way. It’s the same thing we have to do now.”

It’s the way he, at Cora’s behest, sacrificed some batting average points to hit more for power.

“I used to see a big hole up the middle and just want to get a base hit up the middle, run hard, maybe get an infield hit. I don’t think like that no more,” Bogaerts said. “I want to drive it.”

It’s the way his quotes have appeared more front and center this season, as he takes on the sort of spokesman role every team needs to lessen the press on everyone else. He’s embraced it all, just as he embraced his future this spring when Dave Dombrowski made no secret that he didn’t expect Bogaerts to sign long-term.

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“I finally just said, ‘I want to stay here,'” he said when the deal was unveiled. “What’s not to like?”

It’s tough not to read it all, even believing it’s not entirely fair, and think about Mookie Betts and his declaration this spring that, “I love it here in Boston. It’s a great spot. … That doesn’t mean I want to sell myself short of my value.”

Betts certainly isn’t going to sign for $120 million. He’s the homegrown success story. The charismatic superstar. The MVP. We can’t know what the Red Sox offered him, how close they came to a Mike Trout deal. (My guess: Not much.)

Betts, however, probably won’t be in the longterm fold until the winter of 2020-21. That’s his choice. It was Bogaerts’s choice to be in it in April, and at 26, he’s flourishing even if his team isn’t.

“My stuff today was some of the best stuff I’ve had all season in terms of commanding the fastball for the majority of it,” Barnes said in the emptiness of Wednesday, the latest nominee for most gruesome loss of the year. “Curveball had good bite. This one is hard for me to swallow because it’s not like I can come out here and say, ‘Well, I missed locations.’”

Andrew Miller was the silver lining of the Bobby Valentine 2012 debacle, emerging as the middle-relief weapon the Sox sold high on, that the Yankees sold high on as part of their restock, and that nearly won Cleveland a World Series. These Red Sox still have ample opportunity to make this more than a season where we’re pulling one golden thread from a haystack at the end.

If they don’t, however, we’ll remember this as the year where Xander Bogaerts took over. Because there’s a real good chance that any success that’s coming soon for this organization is going to have something to do with him.