PITTSBURGH – When the Red Sox moved to overhaul their lineup with the trade deadline acquisitions of Tommy Pham and Eric Hosmer, Alex Verdugo confessed a measure of concern to manager Alex Cora.
“He thought he was gonna hit in the bottom of the lineup,” relayed Cora. “I was like, ‘Nah, you’ll hit up there.’”
Indeed, shortly after the trade deadline, Verdugo was bumped up to the cleanup spot. He’s responded with a blistering stretch that reached a zenith on Wednesday, when Verdugo matched a career-high by reaching base five times in an 8-3 Red Sox victory over the Pirates, the team’s fifth win in its last six games.
Verdugo went 3 for 3 with a double, a pair of walks, and two runs scored. He’s now reached base multiple times in seven of his last 11 games, forging a .447/.543/.737 line in the process to bring an air of respectability to his season line (.280/.328/.400).
“I feel locked in,” said Verdugo. “I’ve definitely watched the batting average creep up there. I think today I finally got to the .280s. My goal is still to hit .300. I still got a ways to go. … Hopefully, by the end of the year, my numbers are where I want them to be.”
On Wednesday, Verdugo helped catalyze the Red Sox in a contest that started inauspiciously. The Sox went down in order on seven pitches in the top of the first against Pirates starters Roansy Contreras, and Pittsburgh jumped Sox starter Rich Hill in the bottom of the inning, with a first-pitch single followed quickly by a two-run homer from Bryan Reynolds that put Pittsburgh ahead, 2-0.
At that point, Hill, over seven-plus innings in three appearances since returning from the injured list, had allowed 10 runs and three homers while striking out just one batter.
“There were a few things going through my head,” said Hill. “It would have made an interesting mic’d-up session for NESN.”
Yet Hill grunted his way back into command of the game, quickly retiring the next three Pirates batters. And Verdugo led off the second inning with a single, setting in motion a nine-batter, three-run frame that featured a two-run double to right-center by Christian Arroyo (3 for 5 with three RBIs on Wednesday) and an opposite-field RBI single by Kiké Hernández that gave the Sox a 3-2 lead.
“Gave up too early, got three back right away,” said Verdugo. “We hilled them.”
Hill contributed to the hilling. After the first two batters of the game, he retired the next 12, ultimately delivering five solid innings in which he allowed two runs on three hits while striking out four and walking none.
His effort was followed by a dominant inning from Ryan Brasier, who struck out the side in the sixth, and two scoreless frames from Hirokazu Sawamura.
“Those two innings were huge for us,” said Cora.
Whereas the Sox lineup drifted into complacency on Tuesday – scoring five in the first two innings, then getting no-hit over the final seven – the team kept pressuring the Pirates staff on Wednesday.
Verdugo drilled an RBI double in the fifth to make it 4-2. Pinch-hitter Rob Refsnyder – in his first plate appearance since returning from the injured list – negotiated a bases-loaded, eight-pitch walk to put the Sox up by a 5-2 count in the eighth. And then, in the ninth, the Sox combined patience and contact to blow the game open with three more runs, one coming on an Arroyo RBI single and the other two on a bases-loaded knock by Kevin Plawecki.
In the performance, the Sox saw considerable promise. The return from the injured list of Arroyo, Refsnyder, and Hernández, combined with the trade deadline arrivals of Pham and Hosmer, and the rocket-fueled ascent of Verdugo have given the Sox a far deeper look than they’ve had in recent weeks.
“We have a lot of pieces in our lineup that can give pitchers a hassle,” said Verdugo. “I feel like we’re right where we need to be – especially when we get Trevor Story back. It’s going to be a scary lineup from one to nine.”
It will need to be. While the Sox are encouraged by the idea that they’ve turned a corner by winning five of six against the Orioles, Yankees, and Pirates to return to .500 (59-59), they remain mindful of the formidable challenge that remains in front of them while residing four games out of a wild-card spot, behind six other teams who are vying for three playoff berths.
“We went through a tough stretch there, but that’s kind of the ebb and flow of baseball,” said Arroyo. “For us to be playing well right now is huge. To stack wins and series wins, that’s our goal. Obviously, you can look at the standings, see who’s ahead of us. You can see what’s going on around the league. We see it. We see all the stuff that’s going on.
“But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter [what happens with other teams] if you don’t win. We’ve got to control what we can in here and keep playing good baseball.”