PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Rafael Devers has one fault that Alex Cora is trying to correct.
“He still calls me ‘sir,’ which I don’t like,” the Red Sox manager said. “But he’s 21. He’s a good kid.”
Devers played 58 games in the majors last season but isn’t yet comfortable being casual with his boss. His parents wouldn’t approve.
“I have to do it that way. He’s my elder,” Devers said. “Even though he’s given me a lot of confidence and I feel comfortable around him, he still deserves my respect. I’ll keep calling him sir.”
Cora first learned something about Devers’s personality during the Division Series between the Red Sox and Astros last season. Led by Carlos Beltran, some of the Spanish-speaking Houston players were chirping at Devers from the bench.
Cora, who was Houston’s bench coach, was watching to see how the rookie would respond. But they didn’t rattle him; Devers hit .364 in the four-game series with two homers and five RBIs.
“They were trying to test him. He would smile and then go to the plate and hit a laser,” Cora said. “So he’s not afraid. He’s not afraid of the spotlight.”
On Tuesday, Devers again showed Cora what he’s about with an impressive home run in the second inning against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Rays starter Chih-Wei Hu started Devers with a fastball he swung at and missed. Then came a changeup Devers took for a strike before he drove a slider off the roof of a tiki bar on the other side of the fence in left-center.
“Usually when I’m 0-and-2, I try and swing at pitches in the zone,” Devers said with the assistance of translator Daveson Perez. “I had a more controlled swing with the home run.”
It’s not often you see a young player take an 0-and-2 pitch to the opposite field with such power.
“That’s what makes him so special,” Cora said. “It’s amazing. We keep preaching stay in the zone. The smaller that strike zone gets for him, the better he’s going to be. He’s a special one.”
Devers also made a nice defensive play in the third inning. With Mallex Smith on first, the Sox shifted against Kevin Kiermaier. Devers, who was at shortstop, grabbed a line drive and fired to first to double off Smith.
When the Red Sox shift, they move Devers over about 20 feet and place Xander Bogaerts on the right side of second base.
The primary reason is that Bogaerts has better range and could more easily turn a double play. But the Sox also trust Devers to make a play on the left side if needed.
“He moves well. He can make all the routine plays,” Cora said. “He’s more athletic than people think he is.
“He can actually run. Defensively he moves around pretty well. At third base, he understands what people think and he knows who he is. It’s not that he’s trying to prove people wrong. But he’s doing his work. He wants to get better.”
Cora invited former Sox third baseman Mike Lowell to work with Devers for a few days last month. Lowell’s message was to set his feet and take his time on routine plays.
Devers had a tendency to rush last season, believing major leaguers were faster down the line than they really were.
“I have better timing now,” he said. “I know the situation now. I make better judgments.”
Devers is 8 for 20 in seven Grapefruit League games with four extra-base hits. He has yet to strike out — or walk. The new coaching staff has marveled at his bat speed and quick hands.
“He wants to work,” Cora said “He’s still young enough that he thinks he needs to get a hit in every at-bat in spring training. We’re trying to tell him no, it doesn’t work that way.”
On Dec. 26, Cora interrupted his holiday break to visit Devers in the Dominican Republic. They met in Santo Domingo for lunch.
“It was my first time meeting him in person that day,” Devers said. “He came out so we could talk a little about what we wanted to do this season but mostly just to get to know me personally. It was a good thing.”
That the manager made time for a face-to-face meeting spoke to how important Devers is to the Red Sox.
“We love him,” Cora said.
Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.