The list of underachieving players who have to pick it up for the Red Sox to return to the postseason for the fourth consecutive year is a long one, and Andrew Benintendi holds a prominent spot.
Benintendi, 24, seemed ready to make the leap to All-Star status, a player capable of 25 home runs, 40 doubles, and 25 steals along with a high on-base percentage. Even his defense was trending up after a terrific catch to end Game 4 of the American League Championship Series last fall.
But like so many of his teammates, Benintendi has treaded water for much of the season, advancing a few yards then being pulled back. He hasn’t been a bad player or a particularly good one.
If that starts to change, perhaps the Red Sox will have an umpire to thank.
In what for him was a rare show of emotion, Benintendi was ejected from Tuesday night’s game against the Texas Rangers. He disagreed with a called strike in the fifth inning then yelled some Rated PG-13 words in the general direction of Angel Hernandez after grounding out.
That earned him his first ejection as a major leaguer. Once he got tossed, Benintendi went the full George Carlin before stomping out of the dugout.
When Benintendi returned to the plate on Wednesday afternoon, he went the other way with the second pitch he saw for a double to left field. Then he pounded a triple to center field in the third inning on a 1-and-1 fastball.
A double followed in the fifth inning on the first pitch.
Six pitches, three extra-base hits. Benintendi scored a run and drove in another in a 4-3 victory. Mookie Betts won it with a bases-loaded walk in the ninth inning as Benintendi stood on deck.
“This was a game that we needed to win,” Benintendi said.
Benintendi chuckled when asked if he was picturing Hernandez’s face on the ball as he swung.
“I never did that,” he said. “I was just being aggressive.”
Benintendi is hitting .270 with an .803 OPS, which is something most players would happily accept, but isn’t good enough for him.
“I feel like it’s coming. But it’s been a grind for three months trying to find my swing again,” he said. “I’ve been talking to a lot of guys and think I found something the last few days.”
Benintendi explained he’s been getting the barrel on the ball by adjusting his hands a bit. This is the longest he’s gone in a season without feeling right.
Benintendi’s swing is roughly the same he’s had since high school with the exception of his small leg kick. He has always had the natural balance and quick hands scouts love.
When it goes awry, it’s puzzling.
“It’s crazy. You don’t even really realize it until you’re 20, 25 games in,” he said. “Your swing just kind of adapts with everything else you’re feeling.”
Benintendi never wants to make major adjustments. But he values feedback in terms of what coaches or teammates see that looks different.
“I was talking to pretty much everybody,” he said. “I can feel it when something is wrong.”
Manager Alex Cora has seen the 2018 Benintendi in this homestand.
“We talked about this the last week, making adjustments and using the big part of the field,” Cora said. “Today he put some great swings. It started with going the other way. We need him to start driving the ball.”
That doesn’t mean muscling up and trying to pull the ball. That’s not a good approach for a lefthanded hitter at Fenway Park. The Sox will take a balanced swing and 40-plus doubles.
“He’s a complete hitter,” Cora said.
It’s evident now that it was a mistake to change the batting order at the start of the season to have Benintendi leading off followed by Betts.
Cora didn’t do it on a whim. The analysts presented him with information that showed why it would make a powerful lineup even better, primarily because it would give Betts more at-bats with men on base.
But neither player looked at ease. Benintendi felt he needed to see as many pitches as he could. Betts seemed to miss the chance to be aggressive.
“We had a lot of conversations and I asked him to do whatever he wanted in the leadoff spot,” Cora said. “He wasn’t comfortable.”
Betts and Benintendi flipped spots again on June 1, going back to what worked last year. Benintendi has hit .333 since with seven extra-base hits in 10 games.
“I think I was trying to do too much. I was swinging at bad pitches and not staying in my zone,” Benintendi said. “It was a combination of things.”
Betts has struggled since returning to the top spot, but his slumps tend to end quickly.
“I think we’ll be fine,” said Benintendi, a St. Louis Blues fan who was looking forward to watching Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. “We know what we’re capable of.”