Hanley Ramirez set the tone on Opening Day
CLEVELAND – Naturally, the Opening Day tone-setter for the Red Sox’ 2016 season was . . . Hanley Ramirez?
David Price, Mookie Betts, and David Ortiz all played sizable roles in helping the Sox to a comfortable 6-2 victory over the Indians on Tuesday. But that trio merely performed in a fashion that was in keeping with its expectations.
Ramirez, on the other hand, may have provided the most striking glimpse that some of the club’s biggest shortcomings of last season have a chance to become strengths.
The signature moment of the game for Ramirez, and in many ways for the Sox, came in the top of the sixth inning against Indians starter Corey Kluber. After Ramirez led off the inning with a single, Travis Shaw lined a single to right.
Ramirez stepped on second at about the same time that right fielder Collin Cowgill (“Plus arm,” noted third base coach Brian Butterfield) picked up the ball. Ramirez didn’t hesitate, sustaining his top speed and zooming into third. He slid safely into the bag just ahead of the throw, then jumped to his feet and clapped excitedly at having staked out the extra 90 feet.
It wasn’t quite Jonny Gomes scoring from second on an infield single in the 2013 Opening Day win over the Yankees, but to Ramirez and the Sox, the play was significant.
“Red Sox baseball. That’s how we play the game. We’re just aggressive — aggressive on the bases and try to advance every time you can,” said Ramirez. “There’s a lot of young guys here. If they see what I’m doing, they can follow it.”
Butterfield, for one, suggested that he’d welcome such a development. Throughout spring training, Butterfield and the Sox staff emphasized the importance of establishing a style of play early in the season in an effort to manufacture offense in cold-weather games (such as Tuesday’s). Ramirez embraced the approach in the opener, showing off the improved quickness that was one of the focal areas of his offseason training.
“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go. Culture, culture, culture. . . . Every inch means a mile. Hanley did a great job with that,” said Butterfield. “The more we can do things like that early in the year, push the envelope, we’ll run into some outs but we’ll be better for it. [Scouts] take note.
“The more pressure we can apply, we feel like there will be mistakes defensively,” he added. “We know that during the course of the year, you’re not always going to be swinging the bats as you’re capable of as a team for six months. You’ve got to find other ways to be successful.”
At the plate, Ramirez added to the impression of his eagerness to change course in the wake of his 2015 struggles. In his first two at-bats, Kluber retired him with a strikeout and groundout on power sinkers down and away — an area in which Ramirez proved particularly futile in 2015 while wrestling with the effects of his shoulder injury, his pull-heavy approach leading to one ground ball after another.
But when he stepped to the plate for his third at-bat, Ramirez altered the script. On a 2-0 sinker, he stayed back on the pitch and bounced a single back up the middle.
“He made an adjustment,” hitting coach Chili Davis noted approvingly. “He went up there, took a couple pitches, got what he wanted, hit it up the middle, and that just locked him in.”
Ramirez worked a free pass in the seventh inning, and then in the ninth, he barreled Trevor Bauer’s 95 m.p.h. down-and-away fastball, his liner to right careening so forcefully off the fence that Cowgill was able to hold him to a single.
For a team that signed Ramirez as an all-fields hitter but saw him record just six extra-base hits to the opposite field in 2015, his ability to stay back and hammer the ball to right may have represented the most significant swing of the game. Ramirez, after all, had focused all spring on (as he described it) “my short swing, being explosive, being compact” with his swing.
The liner to right displayed precisely the sort of result he hopes to produce with greater frequency this year.
“I thought that ball was going to be way out,” said assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez. “His [batting practice] has been that way, that way, driving balls that way. He’s not trying to pull the ball. That’s a good sign. [That is] the hitter that everyone was waiting for — the hitter that the Red Sox signed. He has been a productive hitter. I think he’s going to hit for more power, he’s going to get on base more, and he’s going to have more quality appearances by doing that. That’s the way to go. He’s been like that the whole spring training.”
Sox catcher Ryan Hanigan, who spent years game-planning against Ramirez in the National League, suggested that the approach the Sox’ first baseman showed on Tuesday brought back memories of his vintage form.
“When he won the batting title [hitting .342 in 2009], there was no way to pitch him because he hit the ball the other way so well down the line,” said Hanigan. “That’s what he’s doing right now. I think he’s right where he needs to be.”
There’s danger, certainly, in examining one game and rushing to larger conclusions from it. The 2015 season, in which a tremendous April performance (including a grand slam on Opening Day) gave way to a season in which he hit .249/.291/.426 in 105 games, suggests caution when it comes to evaluating Ramirez.
But on the day of the opener, he looked like exactly the type of player who the Red Sox need him to be.
“He looks like he’s really enjoying what he’s doing,” said Butterfield. “He takes batting practice and does his early work with a lot of energy and plays the game with a lot of energy. He’s such a key guy for us. A healthy Hanley and an energetic Hanley is a really productive guy and helps everyone around him.”