The time the Dodgers first base coach almost broke Rafael Devers
The breakout season by Rafael Devers has been a joy for members of the Red Sox organization who have watched the 22-year-old emerge as a budding star, one of the elite young hitters in the game. Yet it’s entirely possible that no one took more pleasure in seeing Devers on the field on Friday than the first base coach of the Los Angeles Dodgers. After all, for a brief moment five years ago, George Lombard briefly feared that he’d played an inadvertent role in a potentially career-threatening episode for the young third baseman.
In 2014, Devers followed a brilliant pro debut in the Dominican Summer League (.337/.445/.538 with three homers in 28 games) with a similarly attention-grabbing show in the GCL (.312/.374/.484 with four homers in 42 games). That performance against older competition suggested a player with a potential to fast-track to Boston.
Yet there were rough edges to his game that pointed to the need for ongoing refinement. Case in point: Sliding.
Like many young players, Devers lacked experience or skill while hitting the dirt. Then-assistant GM Mike Hazen and farm director Ben Crockett wanted to address the educational gap, and asked Lombard to offer a tutorial on the subject.
Lombard, the grandson of a longtime Harvard Business School Dean, approached the task in a fashion befitting the institution where his grandfather had taught. He presented a 15-slide PowerPoint outlining the advantages and disadvantages of different sliding techniques, with images – the infamous collision of Jonathan Villar’s face with the derriere of Brandon Phillips, Mike Napoli’s grotesquely bent finger, along with well-executed slides from players such as Jonny Gomes and Jacoby Ellsbury – that served as case studies of a sort.
(To reinforce the organization’s discouragement of headfirst slides – a point made throughout the slideshow with an emphasis on injuries and embarrassments suffered from sliding headfirst – the presentation opened with an image of Red Sox minor league field coordinator David Howard faceplanting into the dirt at home plate on a misguided attempt to score during his own big league career.)
The theory session was followed by a progressive application. The players started by going from a standing position to sitting on the ground, then graduated to sliding on a pad at second base, then finally progressed to the dirt. Lombard built precautions into the exercises. Players wore kneepads and extra pants. Extra Diamond Dry was spread on the dirt and left unraked so that it wouldn’t stick to the ground.
At the conclusion of a session with infielders, Lombard availed himself to anyone who wanted extra work. Devers put up his hand.
“Lombard, I think I need more help on my sliding,” he volunteered.
Devers slid twice, then requested one final exercise. As he went into the bag, he caught a spike and howled in pain.
“In the moment, I was like, ‘Oh my God! I broke my foot!’” Devers recalled through a translator.
He wasn’t wrong – and onlookers endured a brief flash of panic in contemplating worst-case scenarios – but the injury turned out to be relatively minor, a nondisplaced ankle stress fracture that required Devers to remain in a cast for a week. Still, the moment incited a moment of panic in Lombard – and plenty of amusement among colleagues Howard and Andy Fox, the infield coordinator.
“They said, ‘Hey, George, congratulations. Good luck getting a job somewhere else. … We put your stuff right outside your locker,’” said Lombard. “It was definitely a low-light of my coaching career.”
But Crockett, the Red Sox farm director, offered reassurance: It was better that Devers should get injured while recognizing his sliding shortcomings in instructional league than he should do so in the middle of a big league season.
And so, five years later, Lombard – whom Los Angeles hired as a first-base coach after the 2015 season – had an opportunity to see Devers at Fenway Park. After Devers launched an opposite-field homer to left against Dodgers starter Kenta Maeda in the bottom of the first inning – his 17th homer of the year – the third baseman had a chance to demonstrate how far he’d come in the sixth inning.
Devers lifted a Maeda breaking ball on the outer half of the plate into the air and off the Monster. Devers charged out of the box and, with leftfielder Alex Verdugo quickly retrieving the ball for the short throw to second, hustled to the bag, where he entered a pop-up slide to go straight into the bag, hands extended upward behind him, rear end to the ground.
After the game, the thought of correctly executing the different technical elements of the slide in front of Lombard inspired a chuckle from Devers.
“Obviously I learned how to be able to slide that way, especially from him. He always used to grab us and teach us how to do that,” said Devers. “It worked that time.”
Even though the run-scoring double came at the expense of his Dodgers, Lombard could be forgiven if he found it difficult to stifle a smile of his own while watching a lesson from a half-decade earlier come to fruition.