Red Sox have a new star in tow

The Washington Post Sunday - - BASEBALL - BY DAVE SHEININ dave.sheinin@wash­post.com

mil­wau­kee — Andrew Ben­in­tendi is, by the most ob­vi­ous mea­sures — in­clud­ing age, body mass and nat­u­ral charisma — a frac­tion of the ballplayer, and the pres­ence, that David Or­tiz was. Or­tiz, the burly des­ig­nated hit­ter and club­house or­a­tor of the Bos­ton Red Sox, fa­mously walked away last year af­ter 2,408 big league games and 541 big league home runs. When Ben­in­tendi, a 22-year-old out­fielder who stands 5 feet 10 and 170 pounds, came to the plate in the first in­ning at Miller Park on Wed­nes­day night, it marked his 66th big league game.

And yet, when the Red Sox, mired in a month­long of­fen­sive funk and in des­per­ate need of a spark, de­cided to make a ma­jor, mid­stream lineup change last weekend, they didn’t hes­i­tate to hand over the cleanup spot — the spot filled for much of the pre­vi­ous four sea­sons by Or­tiz — to the young­ster Ben­in­tendi. In four games in the four hole, he went 8 for his first 18 with three dou­bles, a homer, four walks and six RBI. His sea­son slash line, even af­ter go­ing 0 for 11 the past three days, is .302/.373/ .460. At one point last Sun­day, the Min­nesota Twins walked him in­ten­tion­ally to pitch to Hanley Ramirez.

It can’t be long now un­til Ben­in­tendi starts go­ing by “Lit­tle Papi,” right?

Asked if it was a dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion to throw a 22-year-old kid who was in Class A just 12 months ago into the cleanup spot of a slump­ing lineup — on a team with World Se­ries as­pi­ra­tions, no less, in a mar­ket where the me­dia is un­re­lent­ing and the fans ex­pect in­stant suc­cess — Red Sox Man­ager John Far­rell ex­plained Ben­in­tendi is sim­ply dif­fer­ent.

“You ask your­self, ‘Is the player telling you through his ac­tions that he’s ready for more?’ ” Far­rell said. “In his case, it was yes. It be­came very clear early on this is a nat­u­rally gifted player who plays the game at a very even tem­per­a­ment. We make a lit­tle bit of a change [to the lineup], and he’s taken off. He’s a unique young player, a damn good one.”

At the time of Bos­ton’s lineup shakeup — the other ma­jor com­po­nent of which was Mookie Betts’s move from third to lead­off — the Red Sox were av­er­ag­ing just 3.8 runs per game, the fourth­worst of­fense in the game and a run and a half be­low their ma­jor-league-lead­ing 2016 pro­duc­tion. But they scored 11 runs in their first game with the re­con­fig­ured lineup, then 17 the next game and seven the game af­ter that.

“Just a mat­ter of time,” Ben­in­tendi said with a shrug.

The Red Sox have op­er­ated for the en­tire sea­son in some­thing akin to sur­vival mode — with much of their en­ergy fo­cused on sim­ply rid­ing out a rash of in­juries, a plague of in­fluenza and other as­sorted mal­adies and con­tro­ver­sies. They still have eight play­ers on the dis­abled list, in­clud­ing no fewer than three third base­men. A pair of un­sightly losses to the Mil­wau­kee Brew­ers on Tues­day and Wed­nes­day had left them just a game above .500, at 17-16, and five games be­hind the first-place Bal­ti­more Ori­oles and New York Yan­kees in the Amer­i­can League East.

And yet, there is another view of the Red Sox: that of a sleep­ing gi­ant that is slowly com­ing to life.

Around the same time the Red Sox of­fense was get­ting its groove back, vet­eran lefty David Price, shelved since Fe­bru­ary with an el­bow in­jury, was ramp­ing up his throw­ing pro­gram and point­ing him­self to­ward a re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion as­sign­ment that, ac­cord­ing to Far­rell, will be­gin Sun­day at Class AAA Paw­tucket. If all goes well, the Red Sox could have Price, the 2012 AL Cy Young Award win­ner, pitch­ing for them by the end of the month, join­ing a ro­ta­tion that also in­cludes 2016 AL Cy Young win­ner Rick Por­cello and 2015 AL strike­out king Chris Sale.

“By no means do we feel like we’re stem­ming the tide un­til David’s re­turn,” Far­rell said. “That would sug­gest that David’s go­ing to be the key for us and we’re go­ing to take off. We’re go­ing to get a re­ally good pitcher back to us at some point in the near fu­ture, but we still have other ar­eas we have to ad­dress . . . . There are a num­ber of things start­ing to come to­gether, and David’s re­turn is one. The way the of­fense has started to turn the cor­ner here in the last week, that’s been a strong pos­i­tive.”

Red Sox man­age­ment opened it­self up to scru­tiny this off­sea­son by fo­cus­ing largely on run pre­ven­tion — trad­ing four prospects to the White Sox for Sale and adding a Gold Glove first base­man in vet­eran Mitch More­land — while do­ing next to noth­ing to re­place Or­tiz’s bat in the mid­dle of their lineup. That scru­tiny only grew when the of­fense sput­tered its way through April.

“This was a team that [in 2016] outscored the next-best [Amer­i­can League] team by 100 runs,” Far­rell said. “And we felt like, even with [Or­tiz’s] ab­sence, the ad­di­tion of Mitch and with the up­grades in the pitch­ing, the net would re­main the same. So hope­fully we’re moving to­ward that.”

Where would they be with­out Ben­in­tendi? It’s not a ques­tion the Red Sox want to con­tem­plate. The for­mer top-rated prospect in base­ball is now lead­ing the team in al­most ev­ery mean­ing­ful of­fen­sive cat­e­gory. He is, at the mo­ment, the best player on the Red Sox.

If there is some­thing in base­ball that Ben­in­tendi is un­able to han­dle, the Red Sox have yet to find it, and not from lack of try­ing. When they first called him up last Au­gust in the midst of a pen­nant race — af­ter just 63 games above A ball — the Red Sox bat­ted him al­most ex­clu­sively in the eighth and ninth spots. But by this Open­ing Day, he was hit­ting se­cond. And a month in came the shift to cleanup.

“What we found out in a short pe­riod of time [was], re­gard­less of the set­ting, the stage of the post­sea­son, or the very early days of a ma­jor league ca­reer, to dif­fer­ent spots in the lineup, what he’s ca­pa­ble of do­ing doesn’t change,” Far­rell said. “That’s a credit to him — to not be dis­tracted by the mo­ment or the place in the lineup.”

He cer­tainly doesn’t ap­pear dis­tracted or over­whelmed by the mo­ment. At his locker be­fore Wed­nes­day night’s game, Ben­in­tendi’s an­swers to ques­tions about his rapid rise through the sys­tem, his re­cent hot streak and his move to the cleanup spot were all met with the ver­bal equiv­a­lent of a gi­ant shrug.

“It’s just a spot,” Ben­in­tendi said of bat­ting cleanup. “I think ev­ery­body on our team can hit any­where in the lineup. For me, the process doesn’t change. I def­i­nitely can’t repli­cate what David did.”

Maybe Ben­in­tendi can’t repli­cate Or­tiz’s pro­duc­tion, let alone his mas­sive pres­ence, but through the first six weeks of 2017, he has done a fairly ser­vice­able im­pres­sion.

HAN­NAH FOSLIEN/GETTY IMAGES

Rookie Andrew Ben­in­tendi, above, came along at a per­fect time for the Red Sox, but he said, “I def­i­nitely can’t repli­cate what David [Or­tiz] did.”

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