FORT MYERS, Fla. — Mookie Betts had two impressive athletic feats on Sunday. One came in the third inning against the Philadelphia Phillies when he lined a ball over the head of the center fielder and raced around the bases for an inside-the-park home run.
The other came about three hours earlier in the day and featured his dexterity with a 40-pound sandbag, three medicine balls, and an empty water jug.
Let us explain. Before the Red Sox played the Phillies, manager John Farrell organized an obstacle course competition for the position players. The prize for the winning group would be skipping the long bus ride across the state to play the Miami Marlins on Tuesday.
The players had to tote the sandbag 15 yards, run a cone drill, knock over a water jug by throwing a baseball at it, lug three medicine balls to different spots, leap over some hurdles, then sprint back while high-stepping through a ladder.
David Ortiz, complete with striped shirt and whistle, was the referee. The coaches helped set up the course and the pitchers were off to the side cheering.
It came down to Betts and Jemile Weeks at the end. Betts edged him by a second or so and the winning team celebrated wildly. Betts raised his arms and was mobbed by his teammates.
“It’s always good to win and always good to not to go on the long road trips,” Betts said. “It’s kind of the best of both worlds.”
Now Dustin Pedroia, Rusney Castillo, Hanley Ramirez, and Xander Bogaerts are among those who will make the long journey to Jupiter.
“Enjoy the trip,” said Pablo Sandoval, who proved surprisingly nimble during the race.
Farrell conceived of the competition a few weeks ago for a number of reasons.
“It was a chance to get a good conditioning day in. Looking for ways to have a little bit of a team-building event,” he said. “I think it accomplished all that and a little bit more the way guys took to it. Nobody wants to make that bus ride.”
Farrell will grant no furloughs from the trip, either.
“That’s a non-negotiable,” he said. “They knew what was at stake.”
Said Ramirez: “We lost and we have to go. That was the deal.”
When the game started, Betts kept running. He had a double leading off the first inning and scored, then had the home run. Betts was easing into third base when third base coach Brian Butterfield waved him in. He instantly picked up his speed.
“I just thought it was going to be a double,” said Betts, who was wearing a red T-shirt that said “Young & Reckless” on the front after the game. “When I was getting close to second I figured I might as well go three. When I was going three, Butter had the decision to send me home. I kind of went with the flow.”
Betts is 16 of 34 (.471) in 11 games with nine extra-base hits and nine runs scored.
The Red Sox saw Betts as a table-setter coming into the season. But he’s developing into a hitter with power. The Bill James Handbook predicted Betts for 13 home runs and that’s looking prescient.
“He’s obviously driving the ball consistently. He gives you a threat even as the game begins,” Farrell said. “He’s an exciting player. He’s always on time hitting-wise. He’s equipped to hit different types or pitches from righthanders and lefthanders.
“Before we get too far out there on him, it’s exciting to see and he’s a talented young player.”
The Sox have seen young players star in spring training and slump once the season starts in recent years. But Betts hit .291 with an .812 OPS in 213 major league plate appearances last season, lending credence to the idea that this is no false spring.
Ramirez, who was 2 for 3 with a home run and five RBIs, compared Betts with the way he played for the Marlins in spring training of 2006; doing everything he could to impress the coaches.
Betts also is coming along as a center fielder.
“He’s been doing well with the communication, moving me around. I like that, a young guy taking charge,” Ramirez said.
There have been a few balls that got over Betts’s head. But Farrell said the coaches have purposely played him shallow so he could work on going back on the ball in game conditions.
“When we start the season, his alignment will be a little bit deeper,” Farrell said. “Setting that aside, he’s adapted very well and continues to grow in efficiency.”
Betts was ostensibly competing to start in center field when spring training started. That competition is over now, even if nothing has been announced.
“I’ve done all right. I have a little more to work on in the outfield as far as routes to balls,” Betts said. “Nothing’s given to me. Until I get on the plane, that will be the final judgment.”