Early Friday afternoon will be largely about the past, as the Red Sox look back and celebrate their 2013 World Series title by presenting championship rings to the players who were part of that worst-to-first journey during pregame ceremonies before Boston’s home opener at Fenway Park.
Thursday night, though, was more about the club’s future.
Sure, the 38-year-old David Ortiz had three hits for himself. And the now-39-year-old Koji Uehara looked awfully sharp en route to his first save of the young season. But the three biggest stars of Boston’s 4-3 win at Baltimore were all age 25 or younger, as Xander Bogaerts, Will Middlebrooks, and Jackie Bradley combined for seven of the Sox’ 14 hits while flashing the skills that could make each of the three a franchise cornerstone in the years to come.
Even three games into his rookie season there’s increasingly less doubt about whether that description will fit Bogaert someday soon, with the shortstop going 3-for-4 on Thursday to improve his average to .556 through three games. He’s also walked three times, so he’s reached base in eight of his 12 trips to the plate, and in doing so at age 21 he became the youngest Sox hitter with a hit in the team’s first three games of a season since a 19-year-old Tony Conigliaro did it 50 years ago.
What’s most impressive about Bogaerts’ sizzling start is how quickly he’s acclimated himself to the major leagues, and how locked in he looks to be considering that at this time last year he hadn’t even experienced 100 plate appearances at Double-A.
You’d never have known that Thursday, when he began his night by staying back on a changeup and grounding a single through the left side. He followed that by getting on top of a fastball to line another single to left in the fourth. He came around to score after each of his early safeties, then he smacked a single to right in the seventh, catching up to another heater to round out the first three-hit game of a career that figures to feature a whole lot more of them.
“He’s played the game comfortable, to say the least,” Sox manager John Farrell told reporters afterward. “He’s been on base multiple times each game. He’s played very good defensively – goes to the backhand on that play late in the game – and he’s doing an outstanding job for us.”
The play Farrell referenced came in the eighth, when the Sox were protecting a one-run lead. With Adam Jones on first, Nelson Cruz bounced a grounder into the hole between the shortstop and the third baseman, but Bogaerts got to it quickly and made a strong throw to second to get the force. Had he not completed the difficult play, the Matt Wieters single that followed might well have changed the outcome.
The result might also have been different had Middlebrooks and Bradley not come to life after neither had been particularly impactful in the season’s first two tilts. Middlebrooks, in fact, had been 0-for-7 with three strikeouts. He slid to 0-for-8 in the second inning Thursday, when the Sox had men on the corners and nobody out, but he rolled into a double play.
With Bogaerts on first in his next at-bat, Farrell called for a hit-and-run on the first pitch – perhaps in an effort to somehow get his third baseman going – and though that effort produced a foul, Middlebrooks lined the next pitch to left for an icebreaking single. Two innings later came up again, and when the count ran to 3-0, his manager gave him the green light. When Wei-Yin Chen left the ball belt-high over the heart of the plate, Middlebrooks roped it into the corner for a double.
“He’s had some decent at-bats,” Farrell told reporters in Baltimore, “but the 3-0 double down to the corner kind of got him going a little bit.”
Middlebrooks was subsequently chased home by Bradley, who was making his first start of the season in center field, and responded by inserting himself into the middle of a couple rallies by way of his first two hits. At first he made an impact with his legs, beating out a chopper before scoring from all the way from first on a David Ortiz single that eluded diving left fielder Nelson Cruz. Then in the sixth he stung a liner to center, plating Middlebrooks with what ultimately went as the game-winning tally, and doing all of his damage against a left-handed pitcher.
Bradley still has a lot to prove, especially considering that Grady Sizemore remains the starter in center, and Bradley is likely to be back in Pawtucket once Shane Victorino is healthy. Middlebrooks still needs to validate a strong spring, too, and some bumps are to be expected with Bogaerts because of his age.
But given that the Sox ranked in baseball’s bottom third last season in terms of hits and runs from players 25 or younger last season, these types of nights haven’t been too common in Boston’s recent past. And they may not be frequent in the present, either.
Though it won’t be a surprise to see these three guys – Bogaerts, Bradley and Middlebrooks – keying the Sox on many a night in the future.