The Red Sox always knew that Mookie Betts would be irreplaceable. Nonetheless, it would have been almost impossible to anticipate the void his departure left atop the lineup through the initial weeks of the compressed 2020 season.
Entering Tuesday, the team ranked last in the majors in virtually every offensive categories from the leadoff spot, including average (.119), OBP (.203), slugging (.149), and OPS (.352). While Alex Verdugo briefly displaced Andrew Benintendi in the first slot in the batting order over the weekend against the Blue Jays — going 1 for 8 with three strikeouts — manager Ron Roenicke returned Benintendi to the top spot Tuesday.
Roenicke said that his decision was driven both by the pursuit of lineup alchemy and the possibility of replacing Benintendi late in games.
“Trying to figure out where one belongs versus another,” said Roenicke. “They both I think would probably prefer hitting second, so it’s kind of switching them off there, but also looking at pinch-hit situations on where we think if we do make a switch with a pinch-hitter where that fits better.”
Verdugo has struggled in his limited exposure to the leadoff spot in his career, going 1 for 13 with six strikeouts. Benintendi was excellent in the leadoff spot in 2018 (.322/.381/.598 in 21 games) but struggled in the role in 2019 before encountering extreme struggles to begin this year.
Roenicke said Benintendi’s past success in the leadoff spot helped create belief that he’s capable of performing well there. Nonetheless, the Red Sox manager also recognized that both Benintendi and Verdugo may be adapting their games in ways that diminish their strengths when batting first.
“When you lead off the game, obviously, you’re setting the tone for your team. I think there’s a little bit more pressure on you to do that,” said Roenicke. “Mookie was so successful in it that he loved it. Guys also saw that’s how he sparked our offense by doing that.
“A lot of times you put a guy in that situation and he tries to do what the prototypical leadoff man is supposed to do and maybe it doesn’t fit his game that well. If a guy is really good at hitting the first mistake that he sees and, yet, when he goes in the leadoff spot he knows he’s supposed to take more pitches, it could take him off his game some.”
Benintendi was one of the Sox’ better offensive performers Tuesday, going 2 for 3 in their 8-2 loss.
Welcome to the bigs
The Red Sox announced that lefthander Kyle Hart will make his major league debut Thursday as the starter in the series finale against the Rays. The 19th-round selection in the 2016 draft will become the ninth pitcher to start a game for the Red Sox this year, and the first who was drafted and developed in the system.
Stock in the market
With a need for pitching reinforcements after the Red Sox threw 199 pitches in Monday’s bullpen game against the Rays, the team summoned righthander Robert Stock from Pawtucket and optioned lefthander Jeffrey Springs to the Alternate Training Site.
“The fresh arm is really important,” said Roenicke.
Stock, claimed off waivers from the Phillies last month, is one of the hardest throwers in baseball, having averaged 97.9 miles per hour in 2019 — the seventh-highest velocity in the big leagues. However, in his big league career (50⅓ innings, 4.11 ERA, 53 strikeouts, 21 walks), his fastball has yielded hard contact, while his low-80s slider has given opponents fits and produced the majority of his strikeouts.
“The last couple weeks he’s been really good [in Pawtucket],” said pitching coach Dave Bush. “He’s a guy we can bring up and plug in right away.”
It didn’t take long for him to see action, as he was summoned in the seventh, trailing 5-1, and runners on the corners. A passed ball and a double made it 8-1. Stock ended up going 1⅓ innings, allowing two hits and three walks, while striking out three.
One day after he sat in deference to knee discomfort, Mitch Moreland returned to the lineup. The 35-year-old first baseman has played in 11 games, but has not appeared in more than three in a row. Roenicke said Moreland — hitting .323/.364/.935 with six homers before going 0 for 2 Tuesday — will receive regular rest moving forward.
“He can be great for a week and then all of a sudden we need to rest him or he could be good for two days and we need to rest him. It’s not a daily conversation, but it’s something that’s there that we need to talk to him constantly about,” said Roenicke. “If he wants to do this for a few more years and he can be in a spot where he’s not playing 150 games, then I think that he’ll still be productive.”
Though out of the lineup for a second straight day, Rafael Devers (left ankle) showed what Roenicke characterized as significant improvement.
A first at second
Michael Chavis, celebrating his 25th birthday, got his first start of the year at second base, with Jonathan Araúz at third base and José Peraza getting the day off. Chavis went 2 for 4 with a triple . . . Lefthanders Josh Taylor and Darwinzon Hernandez continue to build strength in their rehab from COVID-19 infections in Pawtucket. Roenicke said that Taylor is “a week-ish” away from activation with Hernandez a bit behind him while getting stretched out for multi-inning duty . . . Rays outfielder and former Red Sox prospect Manuel Margot’s second career four-hit night Monday came in the wake of heartbreak. Margot’s father, Enmanuel, passed away last week after a 19-day hospitalization due to COVID-19. Margot rejoined the team Sunday. “I felt like he was with me,” Margot told reporters. The Red Sox traded Margot to the Padres in November 2015 as part of the Craig Kimbrel package. According to multiple major league sources, the Sox discussed the possibility of reacquiring Margot from the Padres this winter in some of the trade permutations surrounding a Betts deal. But after the Sox agreed to deal Betts to the Dodgers, San Diego shipped Margot to the Rays for closer Emilio Pagan. Monday marked Margot’s first big league game at Fenway Park, the home of the team that signed him out of the Dominican in 2011.