The more he watched pitchers flirt with his hot zones without being punished, the more Xander Bogaerts realized something wasn’t clicking.
He had noticed it for nearly two weeks.
When he came to the plate in the fifth inning against the Reds May 6 with two on and one out, Homer Bailey challenged him with two fastballs up and in.
Bogaerts knows his hot spots — he calls them his “happy place” — and that was one of them. In his short career, he has hit .429 on pitches high and tight, according to Brooks Baseball, a website that tracks pitches.
But Bogaerts popped the first one foul to the right side. Then he did almost the exact same thing with the second. He ended up waving at a slider and leaving those two runners stranded.
A few days later in Texas, he came to the plate in the seventh inning against Aaron Poreda. Poreda started him with a chest-high fastball over the middle of the plate — a hot zone in which Bogaerts hits .313 — and Bogaerts whipped it foul down the right side.
Three pitches later, Poreda tried to pump another heater by Bogaerts thigh-high and in — a hot zone in which Bogaerts hits .346 — and Bogaerts fouled it off his leg. He struck out trying to check his swing on the next pitch.
As more games went by, Bogaerts’s memory bank filled with all the pitches he had missed.
He fouled off seven straight pitches in a 14-pitch ironman match with Twins starter Phil Hughes the next series in Minnesota.
But a crack in Bogaerts’s seemingly impenetrable poise was revealed last Friday, six pitches into his second at-bat against Tigers ace Max Scherzer.
The reigning Cy Young winner, who was shutting out the Red Sox, fed Bogaerts a fastball up and over on the outer half of the plate — where Bogaerts is a .500 hitter — and Bogaerts fouled it into the seats down the third base line.
Bogaerts knew he had let Scherzer get away with one. He let out a sharp, quick bark, stepped out of the batter’s box, stuck his bat under his arm, fidgeted with his batting gloves, got back in the box, and popped to short on the next pitch.
He felt like he knew how Scherzer wanted to pitch him.
“It’s just those pitches that I’m missing too much,” Bogaerts said. “Just missing too many pitches.”
In an eight-game stretch that covered the series against Cincinnati, Texas, and Minnesota, Bogaerts hit .172 with eight strikeouts in 29 at-bats. His batting average dropped from .280 to .257.
The day after getting shut down by Scherzer, he came into the clubhouse looking to correct things.
“I went out there on the field and I did what I had to do to get my swing back, because it wasn’t fun missing so many pitches,” he said.
On Saturday and Sunday, Bogaerts went 4 for 7 with a home run and three sharp singles, providing a boost for a lineup that struggled to muster runs while being swept by baseball’s best team.
It wasn’t necessarily a quick fix that changed things for Bogaerts, manager John Farrell said.
“To say that there was a drastic adjustment from one day to the next, I can’t say that,” Farrell said. “He got some pitches and he squared them up.”
But part of what makes Bogaerts so special at just 21 years old is how in tune he is with his approach at the plate and how pitchers want to work him.
“The thing that stands out with Xander is his awareness to not only his abilities but the game situation,” Farrell said.
In April, Bogaerts went on a 10-game hitting streak that pumped his average up to .287.
Even when in a rut at the plate, he said, he still felt like he had a handle on how pitchers were approaching him.
“Sometimes I really know what to do, but it’s just a matter of me, I guess,” Bogaerts said. “They execute, but I have to execute as well. Just a matter of I was missing too many balls that I should put in play or do something with it. Just fouling off. I had to work on some stuff.
“Every at-bat I go up there, see if the guy’s going to throw me the same thing. It’s a matter of executing, doing what you want to do and sticking with the plan.”
Between Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr., the Red Sox have put their trust in two young players with massive upside but also vast amounts of room to grow.
They’ve both experienced the swings of success and failure this season.
“It’s not easy for any young player who comes up to the big leagues,” Bogaerts said. “This is not the minors. This is the big leagues. You’re on TV every day. Everyone sees you, sees how you hit, what pitches you can and can’t hit. They see everything.”
At different points, both Bogaerts and Bradley have missed a game just to clear the mental clutter. They’ve shown up early at the ballpark for extra work, watched the game from the dugout, studied pitching patterns and filled their mental notebooks with fresh approaches at the plate.
Figuring out how to regroup after struggling has been as much a part of the learning curve as anything.
“Just to see it differently and without the in-game emotion that might be attached to it,” Farrell said. “I think the game will speed up on any player regardless of their age.
“It might happen a little bit more readily for a guy who’s less experienced, but when you see some of the actions inside the game or between the lines that might lend to it speeding up on them emotionally, that’s where you take a brief step back to let it regroup, and we’re hopeful that that happens.”
. . .
As the Red Sox struggle offensively, second base prospect Mookie Betts has started the last two games in center field for Double A Portland. Through Sunday, the 21-year-old was hitting .382 with a 1.039 OPS for the Sea Dogs. Betts had 19 extra-base hits and 19 stolen bases in his first 38 games . . . The Red Sox hosted a luncheon and ceremony Monday to present World Series rings to employees of the organization.