BOSTON -- Wil Myers has the ability to make multiple All-Star teams, earn lots of money and have a long career in the game as a slugger in the Dale Murphy mold. Between the raw power and the fresh-faced Tar Heel countenance, Myers is the kind of old-fashioned prodigy scouts and bloggers can embrace with equal fervor. He even eschews batting gloves.
But his first career postseason appearance is shaping up to be a character test. In Game 1 of the American League Division Series, Myers made a major gaffe in right field, received the PNC Park Johnny Cueto treatment from a sellout crowd at Fenway Park, and then stood in front of a brick wall outside the Tampa Bay clubhouse and dissected precisely how and why he messed up. All things considered, it was quite a formative experience for a young player on the rise.
The box score will show that the Red Sox steamrolled the Rays 12-2 in the series opener Friday. Jon Lester overcame an early bout of home run-itis to pitch 7 2/3 stellar innings, and the Red Sox banged out 14 hits against Matt Moore and the Tampa Bay bullpen to win in a laugher. The performance was a microcosm of Boston's all-around game and a reminder why the Red Sox are a serious threat to win their third championship since 2004.
From a strictly human standpoint, the most compelling story revolved around a young, talented player who discovered the hazards of experiencing growing pains at the worst possible time.
With Tampa Bay up 2-0 on early home runs by Sean Rodriguez and Ben Zobrist, Dustin Pedroia led off the fourth inning with a single up the middle. David Ortiz followed with a long fly ball to right field, and Myers called for the ball and was poised to catch it for the first out.
And then, inexplicably, Myers peeled off, and the ball landed on the warning track and bounced into the Boston bullpen for a ground-rule double. Center fielder Desmond Jennings looked at Myers. Myers looked at Jennings, and Rays manager Joe Maddon stared out from the dugout with an expression than can best be described as "slack-jawed."
The last time something this weird transpired in the vicinity of the Fenway Park bullpen, Jeff Nelson and Karim Garcia of the New York Yankees were charged with assault and battery for brawling with a groundskeeper because he cheered for the Red Sox during the 2003 playoffs.
Fans of conspiracy theories immediately wondered whether Myers was duped by a mystery prankster in the Boston pen who might have yelled for the ball in an attempt to confuse him. But that's not how things transpired. Myers was about to catch the ball when he saw Jennings out of the corner of his eye and bailed of his own accord. It was simply a case of inexperience and bad judgment.
"It's a loud crowd," Myers said. "There's no calling for the ball there. It's just a hand motion. Center fielder has the priority, but it was totally my fault. Obviously it hurt. It changed the demeanor of the game."
One thing led to another, and yet another. Jonny Gomes smacked a two-run double off the Green Monster to tie the game. The Red Sox made it 3-2 when Moore was late to the bag on an infield hit and Gomes hustled in to score from second base. Before the inning was through, Rodriguez misplayed a line drive off the wall and Jacoby Ellsbury reached on a strikeout thanks to a passed ball by Rays catcher Jose Lobaton. Ten Boston hitters came to the plate in an inning that would have been unsightly even by Houston Astros or Bad News Bears standards.
"It happens once in a while," Maddon said. "Normally when it happens during the regular season, I just say, 'Throw that one in the garbage can.' Being that it's the first of five, let's do the same thing now."
The Rays don't spend a lot of money on payroll, but they invariably make the most out of what they have. This year they ranked fourth in the majors in Baseball Prospectus' team defensive efficiency ratings, which measure the proficiency with which teams turn batted balls into outs. From 2008 through 2012, the Rays ranked either first or second in that department four times. There's a reason why every feature story about them includes the obligatory use of the phrase "fundamentally sound."
Heading into this series, conventional wisdom held that the Rays might lose to Boston, but it wouldn't be because they were spooked by Fenway Park or would beat themselves with careless mistakes. The Rays lost 12 of 19 regular-season meetings with Boston this year, but logged a 51-39 record against the Red Sox from 2008-2012.
That impressive history -- along with their recent run of pressure-filled road victories this season -- leaves them with a sense of confidence that the mood of this series can turn in a hurry. Of course, it helps that the Rays have David Price and Alex Cobb lined up to take the mound in Games 2 and 3, respectively.
What impact will the Game 1 mess have on Myers' psyche moving forward? After his misplay, he was serenaded with chants of "My-ers! My-ers!" by 38,177 Fenway fans, some of whom might have watched the crowd in Pittsburgh unnerve Cueto with a similar tactic in the National League wild-card game earlier this week. If the Boston players weren't so busy trying to crush the Rays, they might have mustered the sympathy to feel sorry for the kid.
"I don't feel bad for him, brother," said Red Sox right fielder Shane Victorino. "I hope he makes a few more mistakes, knock on wood, because I want to win. But he's going to be a good player. He's got a lot of tools. He's going to be fine."
Myers is the front-runner for American League Rookie of the Year after hitting .293 with 13 homers and an .831 OPS after being summoned from Triple-A Durham in June. He also logged a minus-4 in defensive runs saved in right field, which makes him a slightly below-average defender, with room for improvement.
After Myers' big fourth-inning misplay, several of his teammates came to the top step of the dugout to offer encouragement. It was the one bright spot in an all-around bad day.
"He looked miserable," said Rays bench coach Dave Martinez. "In a situation like that, it doesn't matter if you're young, old or a veteran. If you make a mistake like that, it's going to bother you. But he has a lot of support here. All his teammates went up to him and patted him on the butt and told him, 'Don't worry about it.' Knowing Wil, he'll come back tomorrow ready to play."
He doesn't have much choice. In October, each new day brings an opportunity for redemption or a less-pleasant alternative. Amid the always challenging confines of Fenway, Myers and his Tampa Bay teammates are about to get a better idea what they're made of.