FORT MYERS, Fla. — In some ways, the photo perfectly encapsules the Red Sox 2018 season.
Part Michael Jordan, part Mikhail Baryshnikov. Andrew Benintendi leaps near the base of the Green Monster, extends his right arm and gloves a line drive hit by Dodger Brian Dozier in Game 2 of the World Series. The ball is behind him when Benintendi makes the catch in mid-air.
Also behind Benintendi is the nicely-framed image of the 2018 American League East regular-season standings that show the Red Sox finishing 108-54, a full 61 games ahead of the 47-115 Baltimore Orioles.
It is Air Benny. It is freeze-frame baseball ballet. It would serve nicely as the MLB logo for the new millennium.
“That was huge,’’ recalls David Price, who threw the pitch. “He saved us.’’
Does Benintendi have a framed copy of the photo anywhere in his home?
“No,’’ he says with a shy smile.
Yikes. I know guys who would wallpaper their house with the photograph if they’d made that catch. But Benintendi is not about shrines or celebrity. He does not have the Gold Gloves or the whopping salaries of Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. as they approach free agency.
In a Liverpool talent outfield with John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Benny is George Harrison. He is the quiet Beatle.
“I’m pretty boring,’’ he admits. “I’m not a big talker.’’
The Red Sox and their fans believe they have the best outfield in baseball. They have Betts, reigning American League MVP and a three-time Gold Glover. He’ll make $20 million this year. They have Bradley, the hardball human highlight reel, a guy who emerged as MVP of the ALCS last October. Bradley’s good for $8.5 million this year. And they have Benintendi in left, a noble heir to the acreage previously patrolled by the likes of Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, Mike Greenwell, and Manny Ramirez. Benny will make $717,500.
Benintendi is not yet as good as Teddy Ballgame, Yaz, Jim Ed, or Manny — but he is a 24-year-old pure baseball talent who has every tool required to be a perennial All-Star.
Among his predecessors, he most closely resembles Yaz. Captain Carl was 5 feet 11 inches, 175 pounds. Benny is 5-10, 170. Both bat left. Yaz was a .285 career hitter. Benny is at .282 in two-plus seasons. Yaz hit 44 homers in his first three seasons. Benintendi has 38 homers in 2¼ seasons.
Does Benintendi remind Yaz of a young Carl Yastrzemski?
“A little bit,’’ Yaz acknowledged in Fort Myers this month. “Everybody has their own style. But sometimes a guy reminds you of somebody.’’
How does a smallish lefty batter hit homers at Fenway?
“It’s timing,’’ said Yastrzemski. “Look at Mookie. He’s not that big either. You get your power from having that good timing and that good swing.’’
Oddly enough, Benintendi even runs the bases like young, reckless Yaz.
Mindful that he gets heat for running into outs, Benintendi says, “I feel like I’m pretty aggressive and sometimes I’ll try to test the limits . . . If we are up like seven runs . . . and it doesn’t always work out — but whenever I get thrown out, it’s in situations like that or a situation where I’m trying to get an extra base if it’s a close game. I get [expletive] from the media about it but it doesn’t bother me. I’m going to be aggressive.’’
A baseball savant from Cincinnati, Benintendi was rushed to the big leagues from Double A late in the summer of 2016. He hit .295 in 34 games and took over as starting left fielder on Opening Day in 2017. A season of .271, 20, 90 was followed by .290, 16, 87 last year. In 21 postseason games over three seasons, Benintendi has hit .272 with two homers and nine RBIs. Manager Alex Cora says the kid reminds him a little of Carlos Beltran, who someday probably will be in the Hall of Fame.
After a year of batting in the No. 2 spot behind Betts, Cora will move Benintendi into the leadoff spot this season.
Leadoff gives Benintendi bad flashbacks to his freshman season at Arkansas.
“I hit like .275 and I’d never hit like that before,’’ he recalled. “ . . . Because I was hitting leadoff that year I changed my approach, it did not go well. I changed the way I hit — taking my walks, getting on base. The next year I didn’t do that. I just tried to drive the ball and it worked out well. So I’m not going to change anything this year now that I’m hitting leadoff. Just drive the ball. I’ll try to set the tone early.’’
Benintendi has 42 steals in 50 attempts in his career.
“With Mookie and J.D. coming up after me, we’ll see how that goes,’’ he says. “When I batted second, if Mookie took off and it was early in the count, I’d take the pitch. I still want to steal bases, but I’m sure it’s something we’ll talk about.’’
Betts and Bradley both won Gold Gloves in 2018. Benintendi wants to join the club. No team in baseball history has had three outfielders win Gold Gloves in the same season.
“I think that’s a goal,’’ he acknowledges. “I thought I had a pretty good year defensively last year. It’s hard to know when you’ve got good left fielders around the league. It is what it is and I did what I could. Maybe one day. I’m just trying to be the best left fielder I can be. Obviously Mookie and Jackie had good years last year. They’ve had a lot of good years there. I’m just trying to do my part in left field and play good defense.”
How does he hope to improve?
“My throwing. I’ll throw in and I’ll have a two-seamer one time and a cutter another time. I have to try to throw that thing straight. It goes both ways. It’s weird.’’
How does he feel about the meat grinder that is the Boston Baseball Experience?
“I feel like I just go about my business and stay even keel,’’ he says. “Never get too high, never get too low. Just try to keep my head down. Just play.’’
Does the outside noise bother him?
“No, not really,’’ he says. “I’ll read about it. Some of it’s funny, honestly. I’ll get on social media and read some of the tweets. They’re just funny, especially when they rip you. I enjoy it sometimes. I enjoy playing in Boston. I think that they kind of know how I am. It’s fun.’’
Oh, and what about the play that made the epic World Series photo?
“I don’t think he [Dozier] hit it as hard as he could have,’’ said Benintendi. “It was a top-spinner going away from me. The main reason why I jumped was because I thought I was going to hit the wall and I was trying to absorb the hit a little. Thank God, I didn’t. That wouldn’t have felt good.’’