FORT MYERS, Fla. — If Jackie Bradley Jr. has learned anything in his brief time in professional baseball, it’s not to get too carried away with the results of spring training.
Bradley was the surprise of Red Sox camp last season, hitting .419 and earning a place in the Opening Day lineup. Now he’s on the other side of the story, fighting for a job with this year’s surprise, Grady Sizemore.
“It’s the same for me, just play the game and see what happens,” Bradley said Thursday before the Red Sox played the Yankees at JetBlue Park. “That’s really all I can do.”
Bradley made the team last season, didn’t hit well over 12 games, and was demoted to Triple A. That experience taught him the value of looking beyond the initial thrill of standing on the field for the first game of a new season.
“I’ve got to get ready for the season no matter where I’m going to play,” Bradley said. “You can’t really ease up. You have to prepare yourself and prepare your body. You want to put yourself in the best position to get through the whole season.”
Sizemore was one of the best players in baseball from 2005-09 before injuries derailed his career. He sat out two full seasons before signing with the Red Sox in January to add depth to the roster. There were few expectations when Sizemore arrived in camp because of the long layoff.
Bradley, a former first-round pick, was once favored to replace Jacoby Ellsbury in center field. But Sizemore has played so well that the Red Sox are considering making him the starter. He played the entire game in center field on Thursday and was 1 for 4, dropping his batting average to .360.
Like Bradley last season, Sizemore made himself impossible to ignore. Meanwhile, Bradley is hitting .200 in 13 games.
“I have no idea what the game plan is going to be,” Bradley said. “It would be cool to know but I just come in every day to see whether I am playing. Keep working, that’s what I strive to do every day. Just get better every single day and see where it takes me.”
Red Sox manager John Farrell has watched the 23-year-old Bradley carefully over the last few weeks. Sizemore’s ascension hasn’t changed anything in his approach.
“We couldn’t be more proud of the way he’s handled it,” Farrell said. “He’s a smart guy; he knows exactly the situation he’s in. He’s asked about it daily. He’s not afraid of who he is as a player. He’s not trying to be Jacoby Ellsbury or anybody else. He’s Jackie Bradley going out to do the best that he can. He’s going about it the absolute right way.”
The Red Sox coaches have gotten to know Bradley well over the last year. His character is commensurate with his abilities on the field.
“We’ve fortunately been able to see it in different situations. Very positive and challenging times and now that’s one that’s a competitive, one-on-one situation,” Farrell said.
Farrell also isn’t reading much into Bradley’s statistics. The Sox see a better hitter than the one who had a .189 average and .617 OPS in 37 games last season.
“Particularly over the last five, six games,” Farrell said. “He’s hit some good lefthanded pitching, he’s taking aggressive swings, he’s put up quality at-bats. Sometimes hasn’t always paid off in getting on base. But the consistency of at-bats has been there.”
Bradley got stronger in the offseason and feels the difference at the plate. He also is more adept at recognizing how pitchers will attack him.
Beyond that, he understands that Opening Day is just one stop along the way, not the goal. Seven of the 25 players the Red Sox started last season with, including Bradley, were not on the playoff roster six months later.
“I’m not trying to replace anybody. I just want to play center field the best way I can play it,” Bradley said. “I just worry about myself. That’s all I can really control.
“I’ve learned a lot from the coaches about how to make adjustments and being able to communicate with other players. There’s a lot to learn and I felt like last season was a big step for me.”
Bradley watched the World Series knowing he has assisted the Red Sox in a small way. Now he wants to be there at the end.
“When the time is right, I’ll be ready,” he said. “I don’t feel I need to be here at any certain time. When it happens, it’ll happen. I can’t dictate what other players will do or what the team decides.
“I enjoyed the experience last season and I’m enjoying myself now. My time is coming and I look forward to playing many games when that time comes. Every day is a step forward, that’s the way I see it. I’m just waiting to see what comes next.”