Game 1 of Alex Verdugo’s experience as a Red Sox offered the chief source of fascination in an afternoon otherwise largely devoid of intrigue.
For almost a full year since being sidelined by a stress fracture in his lower back, Verdugo had imagined finally returning to the field for a game that counted. He daydreamed during the monotonous days of his spring training rehab about the electricity of playing at Fenway Park in the home uniform of the team for whom he rooted while growing up in Arizona.
His return to the field didn’t go exactly according to script. Verdugo — the centerpiece of the return for the Red Sox’ trade of Mookie Betts and David Price to the Dodgers — made his debut in his new team’s second game of the season rather than on Opening Day. And, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic meant that visions of a packed Fenway Park were replaced by the reality of a nearly empty ballpark.
Nonetheless, Verdugo made sure that after 356 days, his first official game action since last Aug. 4 was eventful. In his new team’s 7-2 loss to the Orioles, the 24-year-old delivered a performance that couldn’t be fully captured in a box score.
“Obviously, it was amazing to get out there again, and to play and finally have my first game as a Red Sox under my belt was huge,” said Verdugo. “At the plate, on the bases, first and thirds, reading dirt balls and really all that, I played my normal game today. … You guys got a little glimpse of it today.”
Verdugo made his first mark with a running catch of a sinking liner in right field in the first inning with one out and runners on second and third. The threat of his excellent throwing arm kept runner Austin Hays on third.
Then, after lining out to short in his first at-bat, the lefthanded Verdugo collected his first hit as a Red Sox when he drilled a single to left off starter Alex Cobb in the fourth inning. Almost as soon as he left the batter’s box, Verdugo began to signal for the ball, a memento he prized both because it represented the conclusion of his nearly year-long rehab from his back injury and because it marked the start of his Red Sox career.
“It’s my first hit with the Boston Red Sox. Maybe there’s many, many more. Maybe we do something special here,” said Verdugo. “I just wanted to get that ball, make sure I had that, just a little special token for me.”
It was the first of three hits by Verdugo, with the three singles (one off the righthanded Cobb, two off lefthanded relievers) showcasing an all-fields approach that could prove well-tailored to Fenway. Verdugo pulled a single to right in the sixth inning and grounded another single up the middle in the eighth.
Yet those two hits, in many ways, proved less fascinating than what happened after he reached base. After his second hit, he took off for second on a two-out hit-and-run with Jackie Bradley Jr. at the plate. When Bradley’s ground ball went into left field, Verdugo made an aggressive gambit, charging to third with two outs.
The decision was questionable. Typically, runners are instructed to be risk averse at third base with two outs, particularly on a ball hit to left at Fenway. But while the one-hop throw beat Verdugo to the bag, O’s third baseman Pat Valaika couldn’t glove it. That extra base, in turn, played a key role in the second and final Red Sox run of the day, as Verdugo scored from third on a two-out infield single by Kevin Plawecki.
In his fourth and final plate appearance, Verdugo bounced a single up the middle, then sprinted to second on a wild pitch. That advance, in turn, positioned Verdugo for a most unusual dispute.
After a strikeout, the Orioles made a pitching change, during which Verdugo went to confer with third base coach Carlos Febles. When play resumed, Verdugo remained stationed at third base. When an umpire told him to return to second, Verdugo engaged him in a conversation that appeared to become heated.
“It was just a little miscommunication, that’s really it,” said Verdugo. “I talked to my third base coach and we were just kind of talking a little too long and I kind of forgot that I was at second, so I didn’t go to second and the umpire was kind of just telling me to go back to second and make sure I don’t do that again and try to get a free base. We had a little back-and-forth. At the end of the day, I think we’re all good. It’s baseball, heat of the moment, but we’re out there working our butts off trying our hardest and sometimes emotions are going to flare up a little bit.”
Verdugo offered the assessment with a beaming sense of amusement after the game. Despite his disappointment in the outcome of the contest, his mere participation — and ability to put himself in the midst of wide-ranging action — delivered a measure of satisfaction for him, while offering a glimpse of promise for his team.
“A lot of energy,” Sox manager Ron Roenicke said of Verdugo’s day. “He’s emotional and he’s fun to watch. So when things are going well, I think everyone is really going to like him.”