NEW YORK — It was quintessential Rafael Devers.
Possibly a sign that he’s on the cusp of a breakthrough against a formidable opponent in Yankees ace Gerrit Cole.
His Red Sox already had a one-run cushion heading into the sixth inning, after Devers laced a ground rule double off Cole in fourth and scored on Triston Casas’s RBI single.
Yet Devers is the straw that stirs the Sox’ drink. They go as he does. He was without a homer in 16 games, batting just .214 in June before Friday night’s series opener at Yankee Stadium.
He needed this. His team did, too.
So, on the first pitch he saw in the sixth, Devers took a gamble that only he could take on a perfectly spotted first pitch — a 90 m.p.h. changeup beneath the zone, fading toward the outside part of the plate. Devers didn’t hesitate, golfing the pitch the other way for a solo shot to left-center field.
“That’s impressive,” manager Alex Cora said. “It wasn’t a bad pitch. It was a changeup and to be able to stay on the pitch and hit it that way. Very special players, it’s just a matter of time.”
Devers’s offensive presence alone wasn’t what helped propel the Sox to a 3-2 victory in the first game of this three-game set. His production got the job done.
He had help from teammates and Garrett Whitlock, who carved up Yankees hitters for much of his 6⅓ innings, in particular. A Josh Donaldson solo shot in the sixth was the only earned run Whitlock would surrender in what was his first-ever start against the Yankees. Devers also had help from Triston Casas, who has been swinging a solid bat for the last month or so and registered two hits against Cole. Devers had help from the bullpen and Kenley Jansen, who registered his 14th save despite allowing two base runners with two outs and coming just a few feet shy of an Anthony Volpe homer.
During this recent funk where the Sox went 3-5 to start the month of June and dropped their two previous series, Devers had been missing.
Not Friday night at Yankee Stadium.
“Of course it feels great [to homer],” said Devers through a team translator. “It will help me a little bit with my confidence, help me get my timing back. That’s one of the things I’ve been trying to get, trying to look for. It’s a great boost of confidence and hopefully we keep it rolling tomorrow.”
The Red Sox, collectively, have been looking for a while. Looking for starters after the void of Chris Sale, who was transferred to the 60-day injured list before the series opener. Looking for defense, which again had its shaky moments, starting in the seventh inning when catcher Connor Wong’s erratic throw on a stolen base allowed Isiah Kiner-Falefa to move up to third before he scored on a Whitlock wild pitch to make it a one-run game.
Looking for a win against the Yankees, who were 8-3 at home against the Red Sox dating to last season.
The club worked Cole up to 101 pitches in just six innings and Devers, more than any Sox player, has made the righthander pay. He’s clubbed seven career homers off Cole, the most home runs for Devers against any opposing pitcher.
“He’s not an easy pitcher to face, and to be honest with you, I’m glad that I’ve been able to hit off him,” said Devers. “He’s very good.”
Whitlock kept the often-aggressive New York lineup in defense mode all evening. He flashed his sinker early on to get ahead, but later leaned on his slider and changeup early in the count, forcing the Yankees to chase.
“Anytime I get too heavy with my fastball, or especially if I get too predictable with the fastball on the first pitch, they’re gonna be able to jump on that — especially at this level,” said Whitlock. “So being able to mix in soft pitches the second or third time through — even the first time — it’s huge.”
Devers finished 2 for 4 with two runs scored, stamped by his double and homer. Cora has remained confident that Devers’s numbers will turn, alluding to Guardians star José Ramirez, who has struggled this year but parked three homers against the Sox in their series finale.
Friday night, conceivably, could be the spark that Devers needs to get himself going. Certainly, the performance exemplifies this team’s dire need for presence, yes, but production even more so.
“Although he hates to say it, he knows the offense goes around him,” said Cora. “Hopefully it’s the beginning of something great for him.”