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BOSTON -- We are drawn to him because he represents boundless possibilities, a youthful exuberance untainted by frustration, disillusionment or disappointment.
Xander Bogaerts, the youngest player to start a playoff game in Boston Red Sox history, has joined the postseason fray exhibiting uncommon poise and patience. He has done so with only a smidgeon of major league experience and the bare minimum of postseason whiskers.
Three times in the clinching Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, he worked Detroit pitchers to a full count before drawing a walk, roping a double, then drawing another walk, each at critical junctures of the game. The first two at-bats were against Cy Young favorite Max Scherzer, who had flummoxed Bogaerts' more decorated teammates into a series of embarrassing swings.
|Having just turned 21, Xander Bogaerts honed the plate discipline he's shown during the playoffs over the last couple of months.|
Yet there was the 21-year-old rookie, standing in with an 0-and-2 count, and backing off on a fastball he later admitted he truly wanted to pulverize. Scherzer came back at him with a pair of filthy sliders that were just outside the strike zone, which ran the count to 3-and-2.
Bogaerts fouled off the next pitch, then Scherzer uncorked some additional heat. The Kid watched with interest as the 94-mph fastball settled into catcher Alex Avila's glove.
Ball four -- and a ton of street cred for the Kid.
"Coming up as young guy, you always want to swing, swing, swing," Bogaerts said with a shrug. "But now, after so many games, I have a better idea of just knowing what pitches to hit."
His story, he conceded, is hard even for him to believe. Bogaerts grew up on the island of Aruba, where he and his brother Jair played baseball from sunup to sundown. The Red Sox were interested in Jair, a catcher, and on the day they visited the island, Xander was in bed with the chicken pox.
"The guys on our island told them, 'If you think Jair's good, you should see his brother,'" Xander said.
They ran up the road, hauled Xander out of bed and urged him to suit up. His tryout with the Red Sox was conducted while he had a raging fever and itchy, red blotches over his entire body.
"I hit the ball pretty good, though," he said.
Boston signed both Bogaerts brothers, and Jair later was sent to the Cubs as part of the compensation deal when Theo Epstein left the Red Sox for Chicago.
Xander, however, quickly became one of the Red Sox's most coveted prospects in years.
"I shouldn't be here," Bogaerts proclaimed cheerfully after the ALCS, as he was sprayed with champagne that he only became able to legally drink 18 days earlier.
Xander's discipline at the plate has been the talk of baseball, a harbinger of great expectations going forward.
Yet please understand why the litany of personnel within the Red Sox organization, who have worked tirelessly with Bogaerts through every level of the farm system, find this narrative a tad amusing.
"We knew he was a tremendous talent," Triple-A Pawtucket manager Gary DiSarcina said, "but I never thought in my wildest dreams he'd be performing on this stage, at Fenway Park, waiting out Scherzer. Anyone who told you that would happen wasn't being honest."
"Now he's patient," said Red Sox assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez, who has been tracking Bogaerts for nearly six years.
Rodriguez threw batting practice to Bogaerts in the Dominican Republic when Bogaerts was 16. The coach was impressed with the way the ball popped off the bat of the lanky kid with big feet, soft hands and exceptional hand-eye coordination.
"He drove the ball to all fields," Rodriguez said. "But you could see he was impatient, like all Latin American players.
"They say you can't walk your way off the island, you have to swing your way out."
Patient? At Double A last season, Bogaerts walked just one time in 97 plate appearances. The word came down all the way from the Red Sox front office: the mantra for Xander was patience, consistency and discipline.
"As a young player you want to hit it so bad, you just swing," Bogaerts said "But, as you get older, you realize the pitches get better, so you've got to get better."
In his early years of Class A ball, Bogaerts' natural abilities enabled him to camouflage his lack of discipline at the plate. And, yet, his success diminished each time he was promoted to the next level.
DiSarcina saw a young talent who stayed in the middle of the field, who didn't get jumpy, who trusted himself, was blessed with great hands and had exceptional arm strength.
Bogaerts tended to stand upright in the field, so DiSarcina worked on getting him to spread his legs and create a wider base.
The hitting, he figured, would evolve.
One night, Bogaerts hit a 1-and-0 fastball "up around his neck" and blasted it completely out of the stadium. Then there was time he launched a "mistake swing" on an 0-and-2 changeup against a lefty in Norfolk.
"It was a really good pitch, down and away," DiSarcina said. "He whacked that out of the park too.
A week before Bogaerts was called up to Boston, the wind was howling in Pawtucket, but the Kid still managed to rocket a blast out of McCoy Stadium against a lefty, "a shot that was gone in three seconds," DiSarcina said.
"I'm watching this and thinking to myself, 'This is a 20-year-old kid?"' DiSarcina said.
Like Double-A Portland manager Kevin Boles and Rodriguez before him, DiSarcina urged Bogaerts to be discerning at the plate, not to bail out pitchers by taking the bait of their off-speed junk.
Bogaerts nodded earnestly, but his first two weeks in Pawtucket were still a revelation.
"I remember one time where in seven at-bats I had six strikeouts," he said. "With all those pitches, I got myself out. They were not the pitches I should have wanted to swing at."
DiSarcina reported to the brass in Boston that Bogaerts was a young, aggressive hitter who became overmatched when he got ahead of the count with runners in scoring position.
"Xander got hit with a lot of 2-1 changeups and 3-1 sliders," DiSarcina said. "He struggled those first two weeks. But then he started staying back, hitting the other way.
"There are three words I use when I talk about him offensively: he struggled, he adjusted, he performed."
Bogaerts' willingness to put in the extra time on the field and in the film room, along with his sunny disposition, made him instantly popular among his teammates. One day, DiSarcina walked through the clubhouse and Bogaerts was entertaining the young guys by speaking his native Creole dialect, one of four languages he has mastered. The next, he was playing dominoes with 41-year-old Jose Contreras.
He was the only player who didn't think to wear sunglasses during a day game, and was the one most likely to leave his bag on the curb during a long road trip. He was a kid, still young, a bit naive, occasionally scattered.
|After providing a spark in the ALCS, Xander Bogaerts likely has the third base job through the World Series.|
"Everyone asked the same question near the end of his time with us," DiSarcina said. "'Is he ready to go up? Is he ready to go up?' I experienced Mike Trout for a year and a half, and he struggled his first month and a half in the majors. He was 19 at the time.
"But Xander and Mike both shared the same trait. They had the complete innocence to go from one at-bat to the next, from one pitch to the next.
"It's not life and death to them. If it doesn't work out, they say, 'OK, I'll get the next pitch.' To them, it's like playing whiffle ball in the backyard."
That enthusiasm, DiSarcina said, was one of Bogaerts' biggest drawing cards.
"Don't ever lose that," his manager advised him. "Your teammates feed off it."
And then, just like that, the Kid was gone. The Red Sox called up Bogaerts for the final six weeks of the regular season, and while he saw little game action, he worked every day with Rodriguez and the other coaches. Much of the drills were done on the field or in the cage, but there was also plenty of film study and lots of conversations about hitting.
"We told him, 'You can't try to hit everything,"' Rodriguez said. "The worst thing that can happen when you take a pitch is you get a strike. And, then, you still have two more to go.
"I think he learned he can hit with two strikes. When you learn that, you can be patient early in the count."
Bogaerts was inserted into the starting lineup for Game 5 of the ALCS, replacing the slumping Will Middlebrooks at third base. He hasn't looked back and the enormity of the moment seems almost lost on him.
"I'm doing OK, right?" he said. "It's tough to sit on the bench, but I was in the major leagues in the playoffs, so what is wrong with that? Once you get an opportunity, you know if you do good, you get to stay."
Jacoby Ellsbury once was in Bogaerts' shoes. After being a late-season call-up, he was inserted into the lineup in the 2007 ALCS to replace Coco Crisp and remained there all the way to a World Series championship.
It was, he conceded, a taxing responsibility, both mentally and physically.
"It can be tough to do, but the guys in this clubhouse and guys who have been here, they stay prepared and stay ready, and when you have a winning atmosphere like that, it makes it easier," Ellsbury said. "Bogaerts has done a tremendous job. Getting thrown into a big environment like he has, he's had some big at-bats for us. He's mature beyond his years."
It has been a magical ride, no bumps in the road so far, although Bogaerts understands pitchers will be studying him and finding ways to make his life miserable.
Rodriguez said that Bogaerts confessed to him following the ALCS that his "legs were killing him."
"He told me, 'I'm worn out,"' Rodriguez said. "When you are all of sudden put in the lineup like that, after sitting for so many days, your body says, 'Hey, what is this?"'
What is this? A star in the making, a feel-good phenom unfolding before our eyes on the game's biggest stage.
DiSarcina was sitting in his seat near the Pesky Pole during Bogaerts' epic at-bat against Scherzer. He found himself holding his breath on each pitch, muttering, "C'mon Xander, wait. Wait for a good one."
Victor Rodriguez paced in the Red Sox's dugout, hoping the young infielder had taken stock of what his coaches had taught him.
"I'm saying, 'Be patient, Xander. Be patient,'" Rodriguez said. "And you know what? He surprised me.
"He has surprised a lot of people. The at-bats against Tampa [in the division series] where he drew those walks to get the inning going, and then the at-bats against Detroit, those are not easy situations. Those are tight moments late in the game.
"When you see it from David Ortiz, you say, 'Oh, well, that's something normal.' But when you see it from a kid this age at this time of year? You have to say, 'Whoa."'
Bogaerts is pleased that all of his coaches and managers are happy with his results. He's just happy that the baseball season is continuing.
"Maybe later, when I'm back on the beach, I can look back on everything that's happened," Xander Bogaerts said. "But for now, I'd rather just keep playing."