Bogaerts delivers walk-off winner

BOSTON -- Look closely enough, and you can spot Xander Bogaerts' flaw.

The scar starts near the tip of his nose and travels about a half-inch to the bridge before making a crescent-shaped left turn. It happened two years ago, when Bogaerts was 19 and playing for Class A Salem. He was sliding into second base when the Lynchburg shortstop covering the bag let fly with a throw that hit him square in the face and caused blood to spew everywhere.

Bogaerts left the field with a towel pressed to his face. It could have been a lot worse. He could have broken his nose. Instead, he received 11 stitches, and as he recalled earlier this spring, the doctor who sewed him up was very careful. Disfiguring? Hardly. It's one of those "character" scars, the kind that adds intrigue to a person's appearance rather than detracting from it. The mirror is still his friend.

Thursday night at Fenway Park, it was Bogaerts' lip that was in danger when he came to the plate against Braves All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel with two runners on in the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game. This time, the pain was self-inflicted.

"I tried to relax, but I think that last one was a bit nervous," Bogaerts said. "I even bit my lip. Then I told myself, just calm down, try to get the runner in or hit a deep ball so the runner can advance and Pedey [Dustin Pedroia] can do some damage."

The count was no balls and two strikes -- Bogaerts had taken a knuckle curve for a called strike, then fouled off another knuckle curve -- when Kimbrel threw Bogaerts a 98 mph fastball. He turned on the pitch and hit a one-hop bullet to the left of Braves third baseman Chris Johnson. A week ago, when the Red Sox were in the midst of their 10-game losing streak, the ball would have been hit a half-foot closer to the third baseman, Johnson would have started a rally-killing double play and folks would have been howling in disbelief that manager John Farrell hadn't asked Bogaerts to bunt the runners over.

This time, Johnson went into full dive mode just to glove the ball, dropped it for a second and then made an ankle-high throw to rookie second baseman Tommy La Stella, who was handcuffed and let the ball bound away as Jackie Bradley Jr. raced home with the winning run.

Bogaerts? He was in peril again, this time from the teammates who streamed out of the Sox dugout to celebrate the club's fourth win in a row, with which they finally gained a game on the first-place Blue Jays, whose nine-game winning streak ended Thursday night.

The rookie shortstop, whose play was picked apart three weeks ago when he went 2-for-20 in a six-game stretch and played some ragged defense, suddenly has become perfectly acceptable to his critics, thanks to a .373 average in his past 17 games and back-to-back three-hit games. That brings his multi-hit game total to 15 -- tied with Dustin Pedroia for the team lead.

"Matter of things turning around," he said. "Just like we were zero wins and 10 losses, now we're 4-0. Hopefully that continues."

His .296 batting average leads all qualifying rookies, and his .813 OPS is second only to White Sox strongman Jose Abreu (who's currently on the disabled list). Bogaerts' power hasn't come yet -- he has just three home runs -- but the weather is warming up, and so is the Aruban.

"Balance, good timing, confidence," Farrell said. "I think as the weather has warmed he's felt a little bit more comfortable. He has about 200 at-bats under his belt so far this season, so [it's] a combination of things. You see him at the plate. He's very balanced, and the timing has been very consistent."

Bogaerts also delivered in the eighth inning, when errors by the Upton brothers (left fielder Justin and center fielder B.J.) sabotaged Atlanta and the Sox rallied with two runs to tie the game. After Justin overran Brock Holt's flared single to lead off the inning, allowing Holt to take an extra pitch, Bogaerts went the other way on a two-strike pitch from Braves starter David Carpenter and hit a run-scoring single to right.

"It's been a while since I've gone the other way," he said. "Guys are pitching me different, so I'm happy that worked."

One indication of how advanced Bogaerts is as a hitter, especially given his limited experience, is his team-best .266 average with two strikes. That might not sound so impressive, but the American League average with two strikes at the start of play Thursday night was .177.

"Confident," Bogaerts said of his two-strike approach. "You can't start thinking you're going to get a strikeout. Walk up there confident and put the ball in play."

Bogaerts said he hadn't been responsible for a walk-off win since he was with Double-A Portland. "That was a walk-off error," he said. "We won, but you don't want a walk-off error. ... But I'll take this one. This one's in the big leagues."

Not to worry. This probably won't be the last walk-off for Bogaerts.

As pitcher Jake Peavy said, "You're going to see a lot of that in his career here in Boston."