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PETER ABRAHAM | ON BASEBALL

Why Alex Cora believes Rafael Devers can be among the elite

Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers made an outstanding play to throw out Carlos Correa on this slow roller in the third inning.
Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers made an outstanding play to throw out Carlos Correa on this slow roller in the third inning. (Bob Levey/Getty Images)

HOUSTON — In his second season as manager of the Red Sox, Alex Cora has learned the fine art of saying just enough in his pregame media session to answer the questions without wasting time better spent on something else that requires his attention.

But when certain topics come up, Cora can’t help but revert back to his days at ESPN and become a little more verbose.

So he chuckled at first on Sunday morning when asked about the development of 22-year-old third baseman Rafael Devers because there’s been so much to discuss lately.

“We don’t have time. We need hours to talk about this,” Cora said.

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The dissertation that followed lasted a few ticks past four minutes, which was more than enough time to learn that Cora believes Devers will soon be one of the elite players at his position.

Then the Sox played the Houston Astros and Devers proved that he may already be there.

Devers helped save a run with one of the best defensive plays of his career in the third inning, charging in to barehand a slowly hit ball by Carlos Correa and throwing across his body for an out as Alex Bregman held at third base.

“That was perfect, man,” said Eduardo Rodriguez, who pitched six strong innings “Really good throw, really good play by him. I think he saved me there.”

Then Devers hammered a fastball from Justin Verlander over the wall in center field in the top of the fourth inning to give the Sox a 2-1 lead. They went on to win, 4-1.

Rafael Devers watches the flight of his home run off Justin Verlander in the fourth inning.
Rafael Devers watches the flight of his home run off Justin Verlander in the fourth inning. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

Counting the postseason, the Sox and Astros have split 18 games since the start of last season with the Sox scoring one more run. The difference in 10 of the games was one or two runs.

It’s compelling baseball, and if we’re lucky these teams will meet again in October, if only to see how good Devers is by then. Because it’s becoming clear he can be a special player.

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Devers was 2 for 4 and finished the road trip 13 for 27 with four home runs, eight RBIs, and eight runs in six games. He has hit .377 with a 1.055 OPS over the last month to raise his slash line to .330/.393/.508 for the season.

That puts him firmly in the same company as Bregman and Oakland star Matt Chapman.

“No chance,” said Devers, who answered the question with a mix of Spanish and what is rapidly improving English. “I have more work to do.”

Rafael Devers singles in the eighth inning, finishing the Red Sox road trip with 13 hits in 27 at-bats.
Rafael Devers singles in the eighth inning, finishing the Red Sox road trip with 13 hits in 27 at-bats. (Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Cora believes Devers has improved because of an offseason program that reshaped his body and a structured pregame routine that has better prepared him both at the plate and in the field.

Devers works harder in the cage before games than he once did and is almost always on the field before batting practice taking grounders and refining his fundamentals.

But Cora also wondered aloud if it had something to do with Devers cutting his hair. His dyed-blonde braids have been replaced by a tight all-business look.

“He cleaned it up,” Cora said.

Devers laughed when he heard that theory.

“I really liked my old haircut,” he said.

That Devers would become a productive hitter was expected. He is strong with above-average bat speed that enables him to drive the ball to the opposite field.

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Defense was the issue. Devers was a below-average third baseman last season and this April was charged with a series of errors on routine plays.

But over the last three weeks, working with coaches Carlos Febles and Ramon Vazquez, Devers has changed his angle on slow rollers, attacking the ball from the side after taking a quicker first step.

“If your arms are in front of you, you can’t clear your hands if it takes a little bounce,” first baseman Mitch Moreland said. “You need to give yourself some room.”

The play on Correa was an example of that.

“That’s what it takes. It’s repetition and working and studying other guys,” Cora said. “We’ve played [against] some great third basemen the last few weeks . . . he pays attention to those guys. He’s been amazing. He’s been really good.”

Cora, who revels in gamesmanship, was particularly proud that the Houston players were closely watching when Devers was on second base on Saturday because they thought he was signaling what pitch was coming to the batter.

“He’s 22 and he’s into the game,” Cora said.

But he’s still the youngest player on the roster, too. During a particularly tense moment of the game on Saturday, Devers walked past Cora looking for bubble gum.

“He’s having a blast,” the manager said. “I think everybody saw it in spring training. He’s been great and he wants to be great.”

Cora has boundless respect for Bregman, a player he helped mentor in 2017 when he was Houston’s bench coach. He wants Devers to aspire to that level.

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“I know a lot of people are talking about Raffy, too, in that category,” Cora said. “He’s stepping up. I can keep talking about Raffy. I’m very proud of him. . . . He’s a force. This is what we envisioned.”


Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.