Sam Travis was one of the best hitters the Red Sox had in spring training in both 2017 and ’18. But once the games started to count, his impact on the major league team was minimal.
Travis had only 121 plate appearances in those seasons, most of them coming in September when rosters expanded.
Two other righthanded hitters, 23-year-old Michael Chavis and 24-year-old Bobby Dalbec, zoomed past the 25-year-old Travis in the prospect rankings.
But the Red Sox designated Eduardo Nunez for assignment on July 15 so they could promote Travis from Triple A Pawtucket. Eight days later, when Mitch Moreland returned to the injured list, the Sox elected to keep Travis and optioned Marco Hernandez to Pawtucket.
“We believe in Sam,” manager Alex Cora said at the time.
Travis earned that faith by going 7 of 23 with two doubles, two home runs, and five RBIs in 11 games since his latest recall. He was 3 for 4 with an RBI in Saturday’s 9-5 victory against the Yankees. On Sunday, he was called on to pinch hit in the eighth and drew a walk to load the bases. The Sox weren’t able to cash in there and lost, 9-6.
“It’s awesome. You want to play for somebody who wants you out there. Somebody who trusts you,” Travis said before Sunday’s series finale. “It’s just a lot of fun.”
The Sox see Travis as a platoon option at first base or left field. They hit only .250 with a .749 OPS against lefthanders before the All-Star break and felt strongly that had to improve.
Through Saturday, they hit .310 with a 1.008 OPS against lefties. It’s a small sample size of 145 at-bats, but still a promising trend.
Travis has played a role in that.
“This is what we envisioned,” Cora said. “Nunie was struggling against lefties and Sam was swinging the bat well against lefties in Triple A . . . The quality of the at-bats and the threat of him hitting the ball out of the ballpark was the reason we made the [switch].”
Nunez’s .554 OPS against lefthanders was why he was released. With actual Steve Pearce on the injured list, Travis is this season’s version of Pearce in that he’s a midseason addition with the very specific job of hitting lefties.
“That’s the way the game works. [Travis] kept working at it,” Cora said. “He stayed with his approach and you can see it. We’re very happy with the way he has performed.”
Travis hit .258 with a .677 OPS for Pawtucket last season after changing the angle of his swing hoping to produce more home runs. But he hit only eight and went back to his old swing this season.
Travis said he was twisting too much in his mechanics at the plate, over-rotating his body while trying to generate power. He has better balance now and can free his hands to get to the ball.
“I get in trouble when I swing too hard and try to hit the ball far,” Travis said. “That’s not the name of the game. You want to be able to hit the ball hard. I was trying to hit home runs last year and in the past I’ve hit them easier when I wasn’t trying.”
The Sox are fine with the hard line drives Travis has provided. Cora demonstrated his trust in Travis in the sixth inning of Saturday’s game. With righthanded reliever Chad Green on the mound, Travis stayed in the game after Andrew Benintendi doubled.
Travis stayed in and punched an opposite-field single to left field. Cora then used a pinch hitter, Brock Holt, to replace Chavis.
“I feel like I can hit anybody, righty or lefty,” Travis said. “This is my role now, to hit lefties. But I was glad I got that chance and had a good at-bat. After Benny had that double, the one thing on my mind was getting him over to third base.”
Travis has been with the Red Sox the last two Septembers and taken part in celebrations after a playoff spot was clinched. But he has yet to be part of a postseason roster. That’s the next step he hopes to take.
“Can’t think about that too much,” Travis said. “We have to keep playing well one day at a time. But this is fun, being here and playing against the Yankees.”
Every playoff team seems to have a player like Travis, somebody who wasn’t expected to contribute but found his way to the roster and delivered. It might last for another week, month or the rest of the season. However long it does, Travis has shown his career still has plenty of life.
“It’s a grind sometimes. But I’ve stayed with it,” he said. “I’m getting a chance.”