Mookie Mania has flourished since the Red Sox called up one of their top prospects from Triple A Pawtucket on Saturday.
Mookie Betts, the 21-year-old wunderkind who has been pegged by some as the savior of a 38-44 team in the season’s second half, started in center field Monday night against the Chicago Cubs, his first game at Fenway Park. He went 0 for 3 in the 2-0 loss.
“I’m not the savior,” Betts, a 5-foot-9-inch, 156-pound prodigy, said before the game. “I’m just here to contribute and do my part.”
Those words were both predictable and telling of Betts’s humility, and that’s the reason injured outfielder Shane Victorino says Betts will not be a flash in the pan.
“He’s going to be a superstar in this game,” said Victorino, who played with Betts while he was rehabbing with the PawSox. “What impresses me the most was . . . the wanting to learn, the wanting to be better. To ask questions about, ‘How I should play the outfield? I’m new out there. What kind of things can I do to make myself better?’
“To me, that’s what makes the kid special. Yeah, his talents will speak for itself but . . . [he] doesn’t think like, ‘Oh, I’m 21 years old, I’m in the big leagues, and I don’t want to learn.’ ”
Betts still has a lot to learn after logging just 90 at-bats in 23 games at Triple A. The 2011 fifth-round pick spent only 2½ seasons in the minors.
His rise was swift but not unprecedented, and manager John Farrell is unconcerned. He says Betts, who hit .322 for the PawSox, is ready.
“Any time we take a player from the minor leagues, the player’s indicated that his time has arrived based on what he’s done on the minor league level,” Farrell said before Monday’s game. “And in Mookie’s case, his ascent through the system has been rapid. He’s met or exceeded every challenge and level along the way.
“And at the same time, with [Victorino’s] reoccurrence of the injury — two situations came together.”
Betts was less willing to classify his progression as quick.
“I don’t look at it as rapid rise,” he said. “Just me going out and playing the game.”
When Betts went 1 for 3 with a walk in his debut in Sunday night’s nationally televised win over the Yankees, Victorino tweeted, “Happy for this kid!!!”
So was Farrell.
“He, I thought, controlled his at-bats very well the other night, particularly the one at-bat where he walked,” the manager said. “I thought he battled inside the at-bat and took a couple of close pitches. I thought emotionally he was well under control. Good bat speed. It’s one game. He looked OK.”
Betts’s comfort partly stemmed from the welcoming atmosphere his teammates created. They had his back, and they let the young player know.
“Everybody here has really helped me a lot,” Betts said. “They made my first game, even though it was at Yankee Stadium — it felt like it was out in the backyard. I wasn’t nervous at all.”
Farrell said Betts is part of a five-player rotation that will alternate starts. Betts started in center Monday; Jackie Bradley Jr. will play there Tuesday.
“We’re trying to get everyday, or close to everyday at-bats for particularly the young players on our roster,” Farrell said.
What’s less quantifiable, the manager said, are Betts’s enthusiasm and vigor.
“He does add athleticism in general,” Farrell said. “We’re looking to get contributions . . . We’re looking for energy. We’re looking for talented players to join the veterans that are here.”
Betts, who batted eighth on Monday and wears No. 50, closed his eyes during the national anthem, left arm behind his back. His right hand held his cap to his chest.
He said his teammates’ advice for playing center was simple.
“They didn’t say anything. Just, ‘Go catch the ball,’ ” he said.
That — as the Sox’ savior or simply a starting outfielder — he knows he can do, and he didn’t have to ask a question about it.