ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The man the Red Sox signed to be their center fielder, $72.5 million Cuban sensation Rusney Castillo, was 122 miles down I-75 on Friday afternoon working out at the Fenway South complex.
The man who has the job for now, rookie Mookie Betts, was at Tropicana Field a few hours later showing he may not be ready to give it up.
Betts had a grand slam in the second inning and made another nice catch as the Red Sox beat the Tampa Bay Rays, 8-4, before an intimate gathering of 16,107 at Tropicana Field.
Betts was 2 for 4 as the Red Sox won for the third time in four games. The home run was his third in 79 major league at-bats, the second this week.
Rays starter Chris Archer threw Betts a 94-mile-per-hour fastball that was on the inner third of the plate. But Betts kept his hands inside the ball while striding and whipped the bat around. His line drive cleared the fence in left field.
“I know he throws 95-96, you’ve got to get your foot down and be ready for it,” Betts said. “You have to get the bat through the zone quick.”
It was the first professional grand slam for the 21-year-old Betts and he wasn’t sure if he hit one for Overton High in Brentwood, Tenn.
“I honestly don’t remember hitting one in high school. Just to hit one is pretty enjoyable,” Betts said.
The 5-foot-9-inch, 170-pound Betts looks like a second baseman, the position he once played. But he had 26 home runs and 74 doubles in 298 minor league games.
“He generates quite a bit of bat speed,” manager John Farrell said. “It’s not so much the size that’s a predictor of power . . . It is a little surprising when you see the stature of him. But when you boil it down to the bat speed, it’s very good.”
It was the fourth grand slam of the season for the Red Sox. Betts is the youngest Red Sox player with a slam since 20-year-old Tony Conigliaro connected against the Washington Senators on Aug. 24, 1965.
Betts, who has started every game in center field since Aug. 18, also made a notable defensive play in the fifth inning, chasing down a ball hit over his head by Kevin Kiermaier and making a leaping grab on the warning track.
“It all happened in a blur. But after I caught it, it brought joy because of one I missed in Toronto [on Wednesday],” Betts said. “I had to kind of bounce back when that chance came.”
Another rookie, Anthony Ranaudo, went six innings for the win, boosted by the kind of run support Jake Peavy used to get in a month. The slam by Betts made it 8-0 in the second inning.
Daniel Nava was 3 for 4 and Yoenis Cespedes 2 for 5 with two RBIs for the Sox. Every Sox starter reached base safely and seven scored.
Ranaudo (3-0) went six innings for the win. He allowed three runs on five hits, with three walks and four strikeouts.
“I don’t want to say it’s easier, but definitely a little more comfortable,” Ranaudo said. “You’re able to be a little more aggressive and that’s what I tried to do.”
Ranaudo has gone six innings in each of his three starts, allowing nine earned runs. There have been too many walks (eight) and home runs (four), but Ranaudo has shown poise on the mound and increasing comfort.
He has won 12 consecutive decisions counting his starts with Triple A Pawtucket.
“Of the three starts he’s made for us, probably the best overall mix of three pitches,” said Farrell, who indicated Ranaudo would stay in the rotation.
The Sox certainly enjoyed laying a beating on Archer (8-7), who lasted only four innings. The righthander took a loss against the Sox on July 27 and ripped David Ortiz afterward for taking too long to circle the bases after a home run.
The 25-year-old Archer went so far as to question Ortiz’s character, something the Red Sox found amusing given Archer’s lack of stature in the game.
Archer barely escaped the first inning as the Sox scored three runs and left three men on base.
Brock Holt singled and Dustin Pedroia walked. When Ortiz flied to center, the sparse crowd celebrated loudly. But their excitement was short-lived as Cespedes went the other way for an RBI single.
Nava singled to drive in Pedroia. Archer then fumbled a chopper to the right side of the mound off the bat of Betts to load the bases.
Will Middlebrooks hit a ball hard up the middle that deflected off Archer’s glove. Second baseman Ben Zobrist had a play on the ball but made a poor throw and a run scored on the single.
The second inning was more of the same. Holt singled to lead off. With one out, Ortiz grounded to first base for what should have been an easy double play. But shortstop Yunel Escobar threw the ball away and Ortiz ended up on second base.
Cespedes doubled to drive in Ortiz. Archer then walked Mike Napoli and hit Nava to load the bases for Betts. Archer surely took solace in the fact that Betts jogged around the bases at a good clip following the home run.
The Sox batted around in each of the first two innings for the first time since Aug. 14, 1962, against the Angels.
Archer faced 26 batters and retired only 12 of them.
“I thought we had a lot of very good at-bats. A lot of hard contact,” Farrell said.Peter Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.