BALTIMORE — Oh, did this feel good to Andrew Benintendi.
It was pure baseball pleasure, two homers on a beautiful sunny, warm day at Camden Yards. The 22-year-old kid has been in a miserable slump for a long, long time. Over 21 games prior to Sunday’s outburst, he was hitting .123 — 9 for 73. His average had dropped 80 points from .339 to .259.
Suddenly the comparisons to a young Fred Lynn seemed hollow, if not irrelevant.
It was the first time in his brief professional career that Benintendi had slumped this badly. He was being benched of late against tough lefties, something that hadn’t happened earlier in the season when he was tearing it up. He was pressing and anxious. There was a lot of first-pitch swinging going on. He was agonizing over every at-bat.
With two homers and an RBI single on Sunday in Boston’s 7-3 win over Baltimore, could he be over it? He raised his average 10 points to .269 with the effort, which also included a walk and a stolen base. Benintendi now has seven homers and eight stolen bases.
Benintendi hit his first homer to lead off the third against Chris Tillman. He hit one in the seventh against reliever Mike Wright. They were both launched to right field. He’s got a nice swing to begin with, so when he connects it looks even prettier.
His teammates loved it. Pablo Sandoval squeezed both of his cheeks after the second homer.
His teammates have lived the struggles with him, probably offering all kinds of advice along the way. It surely was well meant but likely overloaded his brain.
Hanley Ramirez probably offered him the best advice — stop thinking, just react. Easier said than done, but Benintendi seemed to take that advice and incorporated it into his approach.
When Jim Rice was the Red Sox hitting coach he preached the same thing — see it and hit it.
Rice used to try to get the players to think about the situation and what the pitcher might throw in that instance. That was keeping it simple. Every hitting coach has a little bit different approach, and perhaps there was something mechanically different in Benintendi’s swing from earlier in the season.
And then there was the usual rookie testing going on. He’s hitting fastballs? Let’s feed him a high percentage of changeups, curveballs, and sliders. That’s what he got, and Benintendi had to prove he could hit offspeed stuff.
It reminded me of a young Xander Bogaerts when he finally got the big leagues. After one game, Bogaerts lamented, “He threw me four straight sliders!” That was Bogaerts’s indoctrination into major league baseball and from there he got better and now in the last two-plus seasons he’s become one of the best hitters in baseball.
Players are coming up younger and younger. They no longer have the apprenticeship stage that players of the 1980s, ’90s, and 2000s had. Benintendi was a first-round pick in the 2015 draft.
He was accelerated through the system, never even making it to Triple A. He went from Double A to the majors. That’s how good he was.
But every young hitter struggles at some point. Benintendi’s time came in May after the league had watched him.
The scouts had issued their advance reports with data about where he likes to be pitched and where he doesn’t. What can you get him out with? Where are the weaknesses in his swing, and where is he susceptible?
After teams found those things out, it was up to Benintendi to rewrite the book on himself. We’ll see if Sunday’s offensive explosion has started that process.
“Yeah, I think I’ve been seeing a lot of 2-0 changeups and 3-1 changeups and sliders. I think maybe I was impatient up there, trying to make things happen instead of waiting for the game to come to me,” Benintendi said.
Benintendi started out saying, “Just another game,” but he knew nobody bought it. It was an important game for him and his psyche.
“It certainly doesn’t hurt,” said Benintendi about his big day. “I might have overthought things, but it’s baseball. You’re going to have these struggles at times. I think mentally you have to stay strong, and I think that’s something I can do pretty well.”
He admitted coming to the ballpark in the middle of a slump was draining.
Video: Benintendi’s third-inning home run
“But I came to the field every day excited to work in the cage and try to get out of this. I looked forward to the games and getting my at-bats to try to turn this around,” he said.
Manager John Farrell has admired the way Benintendi handled adversity.
“It was good to get Benny get off the schneid a little bit with some big hits. It looked like more of his aggressive swing,” Farrell said.
“His emotions are under control. He gets frustrated, but you don’t see it outwardly. It doesn’t take him out of his game.
“Throughout the two downspells he’s gone through, he’s kept his head on his shoulder the right way, and hopefully it starts to turn here.”