NEW YORK — It was the second batter of the Yankees’ first inning Sunday night — yes, Derek Jeter — who got Mookie Betts’s Red Sox career going with a one-hop single to right that Betts fielded smoothly and threw into the infield.
Where would it go from there?
Betts, six days younger than Xander Bogaerts and wearing No. 50, went 1 for 3 with a walk, an ill-advised attempt on a diving catch in right field that resulted in a triple, a caught stealing, and a double play in his much-ballyhooed major league debut at Yankee Stadium, with 48,124 watching in person and millions more on ESPN.
A mixed bag, for sure.
“It was great,” said the 21-year-old Betts. “I had jitters once I saw the first pitch, same game. For the first game, it was a real incredible atmosphere.”
Betts got up for his first at-bat at 8:32 p.m.
Facing Chase Whitley, he had the count 2 and 0 before swinging at a slider out of the strike zone. On a 2-and-1 pitch, Betts grounded into a 5-4-3 double play, ending Boston’s second inning after Stephen Drew knocked in the first run of an 8-5 Red Sox victory.
Betts’s second at-bat came at 9:25. Fourth inning, second pitch, single up the middle. His first major league hit.
Betts, who had 29 steals between Double A and Triple A this season and 38 last season, attempted a steal of second base and was thrown out by Brian McCann on a close play. Betts seemed to get a good jump, but McCann made a pinpoint throw.
“They told me, don’t change anything, so I’ll take that here and try to be aggressive and steal bases,” Betts said.
In the fifth, he tried to make a diving catch on Ichiro Suzuki’s sinking liner to right. The ball got by him for a triple. Brett Gardner then smacked a double to right to cut the Sox’ lead to 7-4.
His approach on Suzuki’s ball, which manager John Farrell called “overaggressive”?
“Just go catch it,” said Betts, who was playing right field for only the third time in his life.
When patrolling right field at Yankee Stadium, players tend to hear a lot of things from fans.
“Yes, I did,” Betts said. “They weren’t too great. But I was told what to expect so I was ready for it.”
Betts also walked and scored in the sixth, and grounded out in the eighth. Having reached base safely in 71 of 77 minor league games this year, he is arguably the most watched Red Sox rookie in a long time.
Betts just went out and played the game instinctively. There will be time for adjustments along the way. He wanted to put on a good show for his parents, who were in attendance. His first hit was pretty special for them.
“I wasn’t going to put any other pressure on myself,” Betts said.
But there’s always pressure when you’re so young and the world is watching.
Bogaerts was under scrutiny through the postseason last year. He showed great poise with his ability to walk and see pitches. Jacoby Ellsbury was also on display in the 2007 World Series, but in both cases, Bogaerts and Ellsbury were not the focal point. They were rookies in key postseason situations.
Betts is debuting in a completely different light. He’s getting his feet while the team is struggling and therefore is considered by some as a potential savior for a team, and a season, one that has been spiraling out of control.
Fair or unfair, if Betts doesn’t provide a spark then it’s going to be disappointing. Because all indications from officials within the Red Sox organization and those who have seen him outside the organization, are that Betts is the most talented player they’ve seen this year.
One Milwaukee scout in attendance said he saw Betts go 4 for 4 in Portland and “don’t think he’s ever looked back. He’s been the most exciting player many of us as scouts have seen all season. Saw him in Pawtucket, too. Same kind of thing. Does it continue in the big leagues? That’s what we’re about to find out.”
Betts completed one of the smallest Red Sox outfields in recent memory. There was 5-foot-11-inch Daniel Nava in left, 5-10 Jackie Bradley Jr. in center, and the 5-9 Betts in right. And those are all flattering measurements.
Add them to the 5-9 Dustin Pedroia and the, ahem, 5-10 Brock Holt, and the Red Sox weren’t exactly an intimidating lineup physically.
The scouts say that Betts plays bigger than his frame. That’s what they always said about Pedroia.
Betts has a lot of movement in his stance. His hands are constantly moving until the pitch is thrown. It’s usually not a style that hitting coaches like, preferring a more quiet style. But as hitting coach Victor Rodriguez pointed out, “It’s a style that works for him.”
Interim assistant hitting coach Tim Hyers spent time with Betts in spring training and in the minors and calls his bat “electric.”
“I think people will just have to see it for themselves,” Hyers said. “He’s not that big and you ask yourself, ‘How does he generate that kind of power and how does he drive the ball the way he does?’ He’s so strong and quick that it’s hard to get him tied up on anything. He battles his way out of it and makes solid contact.”
Every prospect who comes up creates a buzz, excitement at first.
Bogaerts did with his hot start, but now the league has caught up to him and he’s gotten into some bad habits at the plate. Rodriguez feels Bogaerts has stopped using his lower body and therefore his hands aren’t as quick as they were before. There’s been work behind the scenes on trying to get Bogaerts back on track.
Bradley has been messed up all season offensively. There have been signs he’s turning the corner, but his performance at the plate is still uneven.
Holt has been the one rookie who has done it. At 26, he’s older than the other rookies and had far more experience.
But one thing the Red Sox were guarding against was Betts coming up and struggling. They don’t want that, for the team’s sake and for his sake.
Midway through his first major league game, Betts had already experienced failure and some success.
And we all wonder, where will it go from here?
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