Throwing batting practice to a tall, lanky teenager from Aruba in 2009, Victor Rodriguez sensed a special talent. Even then, at a tryout in the Dominican Republic, Xander Bogaerts was something to behold at the plate.
Rodriguez, the Red Sox’ minor league hitting coordinator at the time, saw a “beautiful thing” in the way Bogaerts swung.
“You could tell right there that he had some kind of life in his bat and ability to drive the ball to all fields,” said Rodriguez.
The teenager appeared precocious, a natural drawn to the game despite somewhat limited opportunities to play organized ball on his island home. He seemed destined for a quick rise to the major leagues.
But on that day, neither Bogaerts nor Rodriguez expected the quick rise that has occurred.
In Game 1 of the ALCS against the Detroit Tigers Saturday night, Bogaerts may be called upon in a key, late-inning situation. And he’s eager to contribute any way he can.
“I liked baseball because it was a team,” said Bogaerts, who also dabbled in soccer, basketball, and volleyball growing up. “You’re not always on your own.
“Like in tennis, you’re on your own and, if you play bad, it’s all your fault. If I play bad, some of the other guys can pick me up, hit home runs, walkoffs, whatever, and the team wins. That’s what makes baseball better.”
In Game 4 of the Division Series, Bogaerts, 21, was summoned to pinch hit against Tampa Bay in the seventh inning. The rookie showed impressive poise, turning his first plate appearance in a week into a six-pitch walk. He ran the bases well and scored the tying run on a wild pitch to Shane Victorino.
“I just went up there and tried to get on base,” said Bogaerts. “Even if the guy hit me, I was happy. I was probably thinking more hit by pitch than home run.”
While Bogaerts is widely considered part of the future of the Red Sox, he is happy now as a late-inning contributor in the 2013 playoffs. Bogaerts is in no rush to speed up his ascension. And all-around patience — a desire to make the right play and not the attention-grabbing play — may prove his best quality.
When asked how he remains so poised in situations such as his first playoff plate appearance, Bogaerts said, “Trust in yourself. Trust in your abilities and know what you can do. You don’t have to go out there and swing and try to hit a home run. You just try to be within yourself and don’t do other stuff.”
His coaches and teammates appreciate such a mature approach.
“If you’re a fan, first time, watching that game in Tampa, you wouldn’t say, ‘Hey, that 21-year-old,’ ” said Jonny Gomes. “You’d say, ‘That good ballplayer.’
“When you’re between the lines, it hides your age. It hides your contract. It hides your draft status. It hides all that. When you see his baseball knowledge and how he goes about his business, he definitely hides his age pretty well.”
Following Bogaerts through the minor leagues, from Greenville, S.C., to Salem, Va., to Portland, Maine, to Pawtucket, R.I., Rodriguez always saw “a kid with a lot of confidence” in addition to maturity and poise. And Rodriguez attributed Bogaerts’s play in Game 4 against Tampa Bay — he also led off the ninth with a walk — to confidence at the plate more than anything.
“It’s not easy to come into that situation and face two good pitchers and do what he did,” said Rodriguez, now the Red Sox’ assistant hitting coach. “He has confidence and he’s a kid that always likes to work and work the right way. He’s a smart kid. He retains information. It’s not by accident that he does what he does.
“I think he’s learning that to have success you have to swing at good pitches. He’s working on swinging at good pitches. It’s not necessarily that he’s going to home plate to take. It’s that he’s recognizing pitches early. If it’s a strike, he swings. If it’s not a strike, he’s taking.”
After making his major league debut Aug. 20, Bogaerts totaled 50 plate appearances in the regular season and recorded 11 hits, 5 walks, and 5 RBIs. Adjusting to a role in which some days he started games, some days he finished them, and some days he just watched from the dugout, the shortstop/third baseman posted a .250 batting average.
As the playoff pressure mounts, Rodriguez doesn’t want to overload Bogaerts with information. The coach doesn’t want the rookie overanalyzing each at-bat, but wants him ready to go at any time and to be familiar with each opposing pitcher. Bogaerts also will continue to take advice from teammates like Gomes.
“When I got called up, I didn’t know what my role would be,” said Bogaerts. “In the beginning, I might pinch hit or something like that. So, Jonny Gomes helped me a lot. I give him credit. [He said], ‘Although it might not happen, start anticipating you might be in the game.’
“You never know what can happen. I always try to be ready.”