Games between the Red Sox and White Sox serve as a reunion of one of the most loaded minor league teams in recent years.
The inter-Sox contests feature several members of the 2015 Greenville Drive capable of appreciating the distance traveled by a large group from Single A to the big leagues over the last four seasons. Five members of the 2015 Drive were at Fenway for the Sox vs. Sox series: Yoan Moncada, Andrew Benintendi, Rafael Devers, Michael Chavis, and J.T. Watkins.
The first four names are familiar, their roles as big league regulars leaving them visible at ballparks on most nights. Watkins, meanwhile, is usually out of sight, but that doesn’t diminish his own fascinating ascent to the big leagues.
The Red Sox drafted Watkins out of West Point in 2012. He played for a summer in Lowell before serving for two years in the Army, at the conclusion of which he reentered pro ball in 2015, joining Greenville as a 25-year-old for the final two months of the season.
“That was, ‘OK, here we go. Here’s my chance to keep playing and try to make it to the big leagues,’ ” said Watkins.
Watkins struggled on the field, hitting .214/.235/.276 in his return. Still, he made a formidable impression on his teammates, many of whom were teenagers. Chavis was so impressed by Watkins that he wanted to set up the catcher with his sister — until he found out that Watkins was already married.
“[Chavis and Greenville teammate Trenton Kemp] had a two-bedroom apartment and [Watkins] just stayed on our couch the entire season,” recalled Chavis. “We became really close. He’s smart, man. He’s smart in regards to baseball, but he’s also smart in life, the mental aspect of it, because you know what he’s been through in his combat training and all of that.”
While Watkins thought he might have a chance to advance as a player in that first season back, his outlook evolved in 2016. He was sent back to Greenville (save for a brief midyear stint in High-A Salem), and his offensive struggles (.144/.210/.165) and limited playing time altered his focus.
“It was about halfway through 2016 that I realized that this is maybe not the most realistic goal,” said Watkins. “For me, at that point, I was 26, I’m playing with guys who are significantly younger than me, you look around, you’re also probably one of the few married guys in the room, you’re different. You’re at a different life stage.”
An opportunity presented itself following that season that aligned with that outlook. The Red Sox offered Watkins a position as an advance scouting assistant who would work with the big league staff. He’s now in his third year as part of the advance scouting efforts.
“I feel like I worked hard as a player and I think they saw that,” said Watkins. “I do the same thing here now — work hard, do my job, and help out where I can. But certainly, going from Greenville and Salem to here is a different jump, a steep learning curve. I learned so much in my first year from [the Red Sox coaches] about what it takes to prepare for each series. I’ve been lucky to have people helping me out along the way.”
Watkins’s former Greenville teammates feel similarly about him.
Thinking it through
Alex Cora did not manage by the book on Monday night. After White Sox catcher James McCann stole second base on a 2-2 curveball to lefthanded hitter Jon Jay, Cora elected to make a mid-at-bat move to the bullpen, summoning lefthander Josh Taylor to replace Colten Brewer for a 3-2 pitch. Taylor walked Jay, a free pass that was charged to Brewer.
Cora said he’d been thinking about making such a mid-at-bat move for “a month and a half, really.” He feared Jay flicking a run-scoring single, and so he went to Taylor — telling the lefthander to throw a “kill pitch” that would get Jay to chase for a strikeout or would result in a take and a walk.
“Why not? If we don’t like the matchup with men in scoring position, why hang with the guy because the at-bat is going on?” Cora explained.
After Jay’s walk put runners on first and second, Taylor struck out Moncada to end the inning in an eventual 6-5 Red Sox walkoff win.
“It worked out,” said Cora.
Nathan Eovaldi, out since mid-April surgery to remove loose bodies in his pitching elbow, was moved from the 10-day injured list to the 60-day. That procedural move was made in order to open a spot on the 40-man roster for knuckleballer Steven Wright. Righthander Josh Smith was optioned to Triple A Pawtucket to clear a spot on the big league roster for Wright, who returned from the restricted list with the conclusion of his 80-game suspension.
Though Eovaldi’s elbow has recovered from the surgery, he’s working back deliberately from biceps soreness he experienced three weeks ago. He threw on flat ground on Tuesday. He won’t make the trip to London for games against the Yankees, instead staying in Boston to continue his rehab.
“He’s progressing at his pace so we’re not going to rush him, either. We know he’s going to come back. When? We don’t know when yet, but we feel he’s making strides,” said Cora. “He’s bouncing back better than earlier and he should be OK.”
First baseman Steve Pearce (lower back), who is 3 for 25 with two walks and 10 strikeouts over six rehab games with Pawtucket, is unlikely to make the trip to London. The Red Sox anticipate that he’ll remain on his rehab assignment to get steady at-bats as he looks to regain his timing at the plate, with an eye toward being activated for the series in Toronto that starts on July 2. Reliever Heath Hembree likewise won’t make the trip to London. The team hopes that he can make a rehab appearance and be ready to be activated for the series against the Blue Jays after the return to North America.
Mitch Moreland (quadriceps) will skip the trip overseas to continue his rehab efforts. He’s begun baseball activities in recent days but is not at the point where rehab games are a consideration. Brock Holt, who is day to day with a hamstring injury, was scheduled to sit on Tuesday and possibly Wednesday. The team was waiting to determine whether he’d be able to play in London or if he’d need a stint on the injured list.
Benintendi was out of Tuesday’s lineup. Cora described him as “a little banged up and fatigued. There’s a chance he’ll return to the lineup on Wednesday, and he’s expected to play in London.
Righthander Tyler Thornburg has a 20.65 ERA in six appearances with Pawtucket. In 5⅔ innings, he’s allowed four homers, walked seven, and struck out seven.
“He’s still working on it,” said Cora, who noted that Thornburg still has shown mid-90s fastball velocity. “It’s just a matter of executing pitches.”
Not in the stars
Cora requested and was granted permission by Major League Baseball to have his brother join his coaching staff for the American League at the All-Star Game. But Joey Cora, the third base coach for the Pirates, declined. “It was kind of late and he already had plans, some vacations, and he couldn’t cancel it. When I asked him, he was like we have plans already. I was like thank you, appreciate it,” Alex Cora smirked. “It’s on me that I was late asking for the permission and all that. He’ll watch.” Aside from members of the Red Sox coaching staff, the only additional member of Cora’s All-Star coaching staff will be Cleveland manager Terry Francona, a nod not only to his role in Cora’s career but also to the fact that the exhibition will take place in Francona’s home park . . . Lefthander Chris Sale will start against his former team, the White Sox, on Wednesday. In three starts against the White Sox (two in Chicago, one in Boston), Sale is 2-1 with six earned runs allowed in 19 innings with 29 strikeouts, and four walks . . . Red Sox special assignment scout Eddie Bane was voted to the Omaha College Baseball Hall of Fame class of 2019 in recognition of his three dominant College World Series starts for Arizona State in Omaha during the 1972 and 1973 College World Series. He had shutouts for the Sun Devils in both years . . . White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson required assistance to leave the field in the fifth inning of Tuesday’s game after he collapsed to the ground after making a play on a grounder up the middle. The White Sox described his injury as a right ankle sprain, with further evaluation scheduled for Wednesday.