ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- This is the kind of year it has been for 21-year-old Mookie Betts.
April: He opened the season in Double-A with Portland and hit a home run in his first at-bat of the season, one of four hits he collected in Reading on April 3. He led all Eastern League hitters with a .430 average for the month.
May: Still in Portland, Betts had 36 hits in 31 games, drove in 21 runs and stole a dozen bases without being caught.
June: He was promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket on June 4, worked an eight-pitch walk in his first at-bat and reached base safely in all 23 games he played for the PawSox before being promoted to the majors on June 28. Oh, he also learned how to play the outfield after being converted from second base.
He collected his first big league hit in Yankee Stadium the next night with his mother and sister watching from the stands, and no less than Derek Jeter rolled the ball into the Sox dugout so he’d have that precious memento.
July: He hit his first big league home run in Fenway Park on July 2, the ball caught on the Monster by a young man from Betts' native Tennessee who said he’d pitched against Betts in a Nashville summer league. The man happily gave the ball to Betts, who swapped him a couple of bats in return.
August: Friday night, in his 10th game in center field since he returned from Pawtucket and Jackie Bradley Jr. was sent down, Betts hit a 1-and-0 fastball from Rays right-hander Chris Archer into the left-field seats for a grand slam, giving the Sox an 8-0 lead in a game they would win 8-4.
Betts has played in 322 games in his professional career, 24 in the big leagues and has had 1,401 plate appearances, 90 with the Red Sox. This was his first slam, and at age 21, it made him the youngest Sox player to hit a bases-loaded home run since 20-year-old Tony Conigliaro hit one in 1965 off Bud Narum of the Washington Senators (Aug. 24, 1965).
Before he connected off Archer, Betts had knocked in three runs in 75 big league at-bats. With one swing, he exceeded that.
Where does the slam rank in this season of firsts?
“Probably No. 1," he said. “I can’t tell you the last time I hit a grand slam, going back to high school and everything else. I honestly don’t remember hitting one in high school, either. So just to hit one is pretty enjoyable."
The 5-foot-9 Betts is proving to be quite the athlete, though the memory proved to be a bit faulty.
Check the Facebook page of the Overton (Tenn.) Bobcats Baseball, and this entry, dated April 27, 2010.
“In Game 2, the Bobcats offense led the way, posting 12 runs in the first inning. Mookie Betts blasted a Grand Slam while Connor Moore hit for the cycle. Jordan Humphreys got the win in the 18-1 blowout."
So, there is precedent. And there also is building excitement for a prospect who is trying to force his way into the Sox plans in 2015. It won’t be easy given how crowded the Sox outfield is, especially with the addition of Cuban center-fielder Rusney Castillo, to whom the Sox just made a seven-year, $72.5 million commitment. And Dustin Pedroia occupies Betts' natural position.
But Betts, who is six days younger than Xander Bogaerts (Bogie turns 22 on Oct. 1, Betts on Oct. 7), is trying to force his way into the conversation.
“I’m still getting more comfortable each and every day," he said. “Every day I run out there, I feel like I can do things to feel comfortable going into next year.:
And don’t be surprised by the power generated by a man who is listed at 5-foot-9 and 156 pounds. Sometimes, manager John Farrell said, it’s not the size of the package but the bat speed generated by that package.
“I kind of knew I had the ability to do it," Betts said after hitting his third home run for the Sox this season and second this week. “I don’t think anybody else believed in me, but I believed in myself. It was just a matter of learning pitches to swing at, grooving my swing so when I get those pitches, to be able to do something with them."
In three days, the Sox move into September. Betts has left his mark on every other month this season. Don’t expect that to change now. He’s just getting started.