ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — And a child shall lead them from the American League East basement.
Nobody bats 1.000, in life or in baseball, but that’s Michael Chavis’s average right now and the Red Sox’ winning percentage with him in this pivotal early-season series with the first-place Tampa Bay Rays after the kid delivered a Kodak (or Instagram) moment in his first big league at-bat.
In a game built on failure, Chavis’s debut Saturday night was an unequivocal success.
In first major league at-bat, he zip-lined a pinch-hit double to center field off filthy reliever Jose Alvarado in the ninth inning, pushing the winning run to third. Andrew Benintendi’s sacrifice fly scored Jackie Bradley Jr. with the decisive run as the Sox escaped from Tropicana Field with a 6-5 win and their first series victory.
This was a crucial win for the Sox, and it avoided what would have been a disheartening defeat. The Sox squandered a 5-0 second-inning lead, courtesy of Benintendi’s grand slam, as the Rays chipped away, finally tying the game in the eighth on a leadoff homer by Yandy Diaz off Matt Barnes.
That set the stage for the origin story of Fenway’s newest folk hero, the 23-year-old rookie from Marietta, Ga., who was called up Friday when Eduardo Nunez went on the injured list with a balky back. He’s No. 23 in your program (Blake Swihart’s abandoned number) and the No. 1 feel-good story of a Sox season that could use many more.
The Sox’ top prospect has arrived in the big leagues metaphorically, but arriving in the big leagues literally turned out to be much more challenging than rocketing a double over Kevin Kiermaier. Chavis endured a bumpy, anfractuous trip from Triple A to the Trop on Friday. He started with a turbulent flight from Syracuse, where the Pawtucket Red Sox were stationed, to Detroit. Then another flight from Detroit to Tampa. When he finally landed, his Uber dropped him off three blocks from the ballpark and he had to lug his luggage and his equipment bag through the streets of St. Petersburg past gawking civilians before finally entering the Sox’ clubhouse in the third inning of Boston’s 6-4 win.
It was nice of manager Alex Cora to ease the kid in against fire-breathing reliever Alvarado. The Rays lefty hadn’t surrendered a run in any of his previous 10 appearances, had allowed just four hits all year, and had whiffed 16 batters in 9⅓ innings prior to Saturday night.
No matter. It just all adds to the legend. It made a moment he had dreamed of since he was pretending in his garden as a kid all the more memorable. Even with two strikes and his knees knocking he delivered a knock.
“I guess personally it’s kind of a reassurance that I belong,” said Chavis. “It was my first hit. It’s obviously a big deal in a very big moment, but being in that situation and off that quality of a pitcher it was very special.”
Chavis’s hit was important. His infectious enthusiasm might be equally important to revive and refresh the Sox and provide a jolt of youthful, gee whiz elan to the clubhouse. They need to restore the Joy of Sox. The ebullient and gregarious Chavis is a breath of fresh air. He lacks the hardened, cynical exterior of those well-versed in the Boston Baseball Experience.
Just listen to him describe his hit.
“It was a lot, honestly. I’m going to turn off the professional mode. That was awesome, dude! I just need a second,” he said. “Y’all are here in this moment with me. I just need to celebrate this. It was really cool.”
Chavis’s introduction was just part of an eventful evening in baseball’s big top. There was Rick Porcello’s high-wire act after he was presented a 5-0 lead. Porcello danced with danger all night. He lowered his 11.12 ERA, but raised the blood pressure of Sox fans in his 5⅔ innings. The Rays had runners on in every inning Porcello pitched. He left the game up, 5-2, but lost his first win.
It was fitting that this bipolar baseball affair ended with Sox catcher Christian Vazquez, who entered after Chavis hit for Sandy Leon, picking off Tommy Pham at first base with the tying run on second. Pham’s walk-up music the rest of this series should be “The Wanderer” by Dion.
“We needed that break. [Vazquez] and [Steve] Pearce had a good read on it, backpicked it,” said Porcello. “Those little things matter. That’s what we got to keep doing. We got to capitalize on the little things and do those things right, and, hopefully, it will turn out with a big difference.”
As the best hitter among the Sox pitchers, Porcello vouched for Chavis’s first big league hit.
“Yeah, I mean it was awesome to see what he did in his first at-bat against Alvarado. That guy is just flat-out nasty,” said Porcello. “We’ve been grinding so hard. It didn’t matter if it was him or anybody else. We needed that hit bad. He stepped up. That’s what we need. We need guys to step up. It was huge, huge lift for us.”
Chavis was thrilled his hit came with family and friends in attendance. He said he planned to give the ball to his mother, a keepsake to repay a lifetime debt of devotion.
The Sox called up Chavis because he can rake. The Sox’ farm system isn’t fecund, but it’s not barren of barrel guys. His first big league hit had an almighty exit velocity of 109.1 miles per hour, the hardest-hit ball by any Sox batter in the game. The 2014 first-round pick was named the Sox’ 2017 Minor League offensive player of the year after he slugged 31 home runs between Single A Salem and Double A Portland.
His fast track to the big leagues was derailed last year when he tested positive for PEDs and was suspended for 80 games. In a Twitter missive, he said that he had no idea how the substance got into his body. The suspension limited him to just 46 games, but he still hit .298 with nine homers, 27 runs batted in, and a .919 OPS.
However, his prospect status was tarnished, as some wondered if Chavis was the product of better hitting through chemistry. The Sox also have to find a position for him. He’s a third baseman by trade, but the Sox have experimented with him at first base and second base.
All those questions can wait. On this night, Chavis’s debut was a big hit, one that boosted his confidence and that of the Red Sox as they try to dig out from a nightmarish start.
“We’ll find a spot for him [Sunday],” said Cora.