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Monday, September 21, 2015

On Big Papi's big night, a new Red Sox hero continues his rise

What Papi saw: Bogaerts celebrates at home.

During pregame ceremonies at Fenway Park honoring his 500th home run, David Ortiz punctuated his short speech by telling fans, "Let's hit some more bombs!" 

A few hours later, as Ortiz watched on deck, Xander Bogaerts took Big Papi up on his offer.

Bogaerts, who continues to emerge as the leader of the next generation of Red Sox players, hit a slider from Brandon Gomes for a grand slam in the eighth inning as Boston continued its string of strong play with an 8-7 win over Tampa Bay. As if to further emphasize Bogaerts' ascendance, his shot cleared the Green Monster in left field just a few feet to the left of the big "501" cards held up by fans to note Ortiz's current home run total.

Pedro and Papi had fun during the pre-game

Coupled with a run-scoring double high off the Monster in his previous at-bat in the seventh, Bogaerts had a 2-for-5 night with a career-high 5 RBI. The 22-year-old shortstop is now hitting .323 as he continues a late-season quest to overtake Detroit's Miguel Cabrera in the American League batting race. Cabrera, who went 1-for-4 in a 3-2 Detroit loss to the Chicago White Sox, is at .337.

An inning after his hitting heroics, Bogaerts showed another facet of his five-tool skills -- diving into the hole at short to grab a hard grounder off the bat of Tim Beckham and then spinning his body and throwing a perfect strike to first to help thwart Tampa Bay's final rally.

Will Bogaerts hit 500 home runs in his career? That remains to be seen. But in pushing the Red Sox out of last place for the first time since June 2 -- and to a 20-11 record over the past five weeks -- he is giving Fenway fans a glimpse at what might be his own long career of big hits.   

Friday, September 18, 2015

Xander Bogaerts could go from All-Star snub to batting champ

Miggy -- I want YOU! (Getty Images)

Look out, Miguel Cabrera, someone is gaining on you.

On Sept. 1, Xander Bogaerts was batting .316 after a 2-hit game against the Yankees. Cabrera, Detroit's dynamic first baseman, was at .359 after 2 hits of his own against the Royals -- and seemingly a lock for his fourth AL batting title.

In the three weeks since, while most New England sports fans focused on David Ortiz's quest for 500 home runs and the start of the Patriots season, Bogaerts has continued his season-long consistency at the plate. A slumping Cabrera, meanwhile, has seen his average hit a free-fall. 

Entering play tonight, Cabrera -- 1-for-21 in his last six games -- is at .335. While this mark still leads the league, Bogaerts has hit .375 for the month to make what was once thought a runaway into a race.

Miguel is mystified. (Getty Images)

The way both players are trending, Bogaerts has a real chance of wiping out the 14-point gap between them. After a .240 rookie season last year, Bogaerts has been one of the game's most consistent hitters all of 2015. He has batted .312 or better each of the past four months and his .345 mark since May 31 leads all of MLB.

Cabrera is headed in the opposite direction. Since a ground-ball single against the Royals his first time up on Sept. 10, he has gone hitless in 20 straight official at-bats (plus three walks). He hasn't homered in 18 games, and while he claims he's not injured -- he missed more than a month mid-season with a strained calf -- clearly something is not right.

Further working against Cabrera is the state of the two teams. Neither the Tigers or Red Sox is playing for the postseason, but while Boston has injected life into its late summer with a dynamic young nucleus including Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Jackie Bradley Jr., Detroit is essentially playing out the string with a lackluster lineup that offers their two-time MVP little protection.  

Young Guns are shining for Boston.

Just 17 games are left in Boston's season, so Bogaerts can't afford many off-days and nights if he's going to have a shot to overtake Cabrera. The way he's hit all year, however, it doesn't appear a slump is likely. 

Whatever happens, it will make for a fun few weeks of box-score glancing. 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

David Ortiz Countdown brings back memories of Yaz Watch -- and the Charlie's Angels Gaffe

Two who know the thrill of the chase.

My phone buzzed Wednesday night in the Staples parking lot with a text from my friend Scott reading only "498." The two photos below were attached, and I momentarily had a rush of excitement and jealousy that he was at Fenway Park while I waited in school supply lines. 

It was only the second inning. Perhaps, I texted back to Scott, David Ortiz could get two more homers in the game and reach 500 before the Red Sox went on a 9-game road trip the next day. He didn't, of course, and by game's end my thoughts returned as they often have in recent weeks to 1979 -- when Carl Yastrzemski was in pursuit of his 3000th hit

I was 12 that summer, and like most Boston-born kids had been cheering for Yaz all my life. I twirled my bat and tugged at my pants in Little League games, and made self-tossed leaping catches against the backyard wall of our house in imitation of Captain Carl's Green Monster heroics.

Like Ortiz, Yastrzemski had been in danger of missing his best chance to get his big hit at home back in '79.

Ancient Mariner (Topps)

He had a great first half-season, and slugged his 400th home run in July, but the march to hit No. 3000 was excruciatingly slow. Like this year's team, the Sox were essentially out of the pennant race that September, leaving fans not much else to cheer for but the "Ancient Mariner's" quest. 

Yaz hit .225 in August, the month he turned 40, and more often than not the "Yaz Watch" numbers that the Boston Globe noted on the front of its Sports page stayed unchanged from one day to the next.  He needed just 5 hits when the Red Sox started a six-game homestand on Sept. 7, and after getting 3 of them the first night against the Orioles his bat went stone silent.

Struggling in the stretch. (Getty Images)

The next three games against the Orioles he went 1-for-12, and when the hated Yankees came in for three more Yastrzemski was still one hit shy. He went 0-for-3 with a walk in the first contest, which I watched on the massive free-standing Zenith in our family's den -- flipping back-and-forth between Yaz's at-bats on Channel 38 and a Tuesday night ABC lineup of "Happy Days," "Angie," "Three's Company." and "Taxi" on Channel 5. 

Remember, this was before smartphones with their tweets and Gameday updates made it easy to view a game in your hand while watching something else on TV. I guess I could have brought in a portable TV or radio and had both going at once, but hey, I was just 12. 

Wednesday's game pitted Yastrzemski against sore-armed New York pitcher Catfish Hunter. I tried my dual-channel tactics again, this time choosing NBC's "Eight is Enough" against the game. I caught Yaz walk in the first, fly deep in the third, and then ground out to end a 3-run Boston fourth.

Tough competition.

This knocked out Hunter, so Yastrzemski was facing struggling rookie Jim Beattie when he came up again in the sixth. By now my partner viewing was a "Charlie's Angels" movie on ABC (again, I was 12) but I still managed to see Beattie get Yaz to ground out -- leaving the captain with possibly one more late-game chance. I sighed and flipped back to Bosley's beauties.

Then, perhaps lost in my pre-teen fantasies, my timing fell off. While watching the ladies get to the bottom of their latest mystery, I saw the letters start scrolling across the bottom of the screen: "CARL YAS..." I immediately leaped up and flipped the dial, but I was too late -- there was my hero letting out a sigh of relief on first base after a seeing-eye single under Willie Randolph's glove. No. 3000 was in the books.


I saw the replay, but was pissed at myself for weeks.

Fast forward to today. With Ortiz still 2 homers shy of 500, I am determined not to miss the big moment -- which will almost certainly come sometime during Boston's current nine-game trip. I'll have my phone and with me at all times, and will run to a bigger screen if one is nearby. I can even watch the entire game all over again if I want (we didn't have a VCR back in '79 either).  

Still, it won't be quite the same without The Fonz and Jaclyn Smith.

Two more to go. (Boston Herald)