FORT MYERS: Most of the anticipation leading up to the Red Sox’ first game of spring training was due to an overwhelming list of questions.
After equally disappointing 2015 debuts from Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, the upcoming season has become unpredictable.
But somewhere between all the doubt, there was a sliver of space left for pleasant surprises. Yesterday, Mookie Betts jumped right through it, overlooking near-misses in his first two at-bats and crushing a three-run home run over the faux Green Monster his third time up.
Betts’ big swing and smooth play in right field earned him the spotlight in the Sox’ 6-0 win against Boston College in their annual spring training college doubleheader that concluded with an 8-3 victory over Northeastern.
“He’s fun to watch,” manager John Farrell said. “He’s fun to be around.”
Betts, who turned 23 just after the 2015 season ended, has already exceeded expectations after he was selected in the fifth round of the 2011 draft as an undersized second baseman. After his breakout year, when he finished 19th in American League MVP voting, the pressure is building for his sophomore season.
“I don’t necessarily want to be that much better than last year,” Betts said. “I feel like if I can be the same player as last year, that’s pretty good.”
He’s been down this road before. In 2015, nobody had a better spring than Betts. Every day it seemed like he did something special. He played in 19 games and had 14 extra-base hits. He finished with a .429 average and 1.217 OPS.
It made his slow start to the regular season even more frustrating.
Despite an impressive Opening Day in Philadelphia (2-for-4, home run) and a don’t-take-the-cameras-off-me game in the Fenway Park opener (2-for-4, homer, two stolen bases on the same play, homer-robbing catch off Washington’s Bryce Harper), by mid-June Betts was hitting just .237 with a .678 OPS.
Betts looked like he belonged on the field, but the numbers said otherwise.
Finally, on June 15 at Fenway, he went 3-for-4 in a 4-2 loss to the Braves. Betts played 83 more games and collected 48 extra-base hits, two more than Harper, who won the National League MVP award. Most of his offensive numbers during that time (.327 average and .914 OPS among the most impressive) were top 10 or top 15 in the game.
“I just want to be the same guy I was last year,” Betts said. “Nothing more, nothing less.”
But if he keeps playing the way he played yesterday, the fans are going to be looking for more.
“I feel pretty close to where I want to be,” he said. “I don’t want to peak too early, but I feel pretty good considering where we are in spring training.”
Considering Betts’ poor start last year and his incredible finish, the Sox are used to seeing him make adjustments like yesterday’s. His first at-bat, he hit one on the screws but jammed himself and the ball died in left field. He hammered one his second time up, but foul. His third at-bat ended when the ball sailed over the towering left field wall.
“You see the quick-twitch, you see the bat speed,” Farrell said. “He’s an exciting guy to be around. Not surprised in his first live game action he squares a couple balls up. We’re all looking forward to what Mookie can do between the lines. You see him on the break in right field and he makes a spot-on route in his first game.
“He’s got a chance to impact the game in three different ways and it’s fun to watch.”
After he put on a show during batting practice last week, one fan hollered he should save a few for the regular season.
“Last year I peaked in spring training and started off kind of rough,” he said. “Maybe I should take it a little bit slower this year, wait until the season starts.”