RED SOX INSIDER

Tomase: Clutch Verdugo becoming must-watch breakout star for Sox

RED SOX INSIDER

Alex Verdugo rounded the bases on Tuesday night with an overabundance of that special something recent Red Sox baseball has lacked -- sheer joy.

He had just improbably launched an opposite-field three-run homer off of Braves reliever Chris Martin that . . . just . . . kept . . . carrying.

And as it cleared the fence in left-center, Verdugo looked as shocked as anyone, thrusting both arms over his head in the universal symbol of, "Oh my God! Look what I just did?!"

As he neared second, he pounded the "Boston" on his chest in a scene reminiscent of Shane Victorino's unforgettable grand slam vs. the Tigers to win Game 6 of the 2013 ALCS. "Let's bleeping go!" Verdugo shouted while rounding third.

The Red Sox needed the heroics, which are becoming Verdugo's stock in trade. Just days after his walkoff single beat the Blue Jays, Verdugo again delivered the big blow, this time breaking a 7-7 tie after the Red Sox had blown leads of 5-0 and 7-4. It proved the difference in a much-needed 10-8 victory.

"He's a good hitter," said manager Alex Cora. "He goes the other way, he drives the ball all over the place, he hits for average, he gets on base, he's patient. He's just a good hitter and when he hit it we thought he missed it, but it just kept going, kept carrying and it was huge for us where we were."

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When the Red Sox made Verdugo the centerpiece of the Mookie Betts trade, they knew they were getting an up-and-coming hitter, but he's becoming something much more valuable to this particular Red Sox team.

 

On a club with respected leaders like Xander Bogaerts, Marwin Gonzalez, and Kiké Hernández, Verdugo adds a dimension of pure energy and exuberance.

He talks hitting with random fans before games in Minnesota, he fist-bumps rival bleacher creatures in Yankee Stadium, and he bops around the field like someone's little brother. But in the box, he's all business.

He is also very quietly delivering a borderline All-Star season. Tuesday's heroics lifted his average to .291 with nine homers and 31 RBIs. His .819 OPS ranks 10th among American League outfielders, and only slightly trails that of Betts, a player making 34 times Verdugo's salary.

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He may not devour video like J.D. Martinez, but he enters the box with a plan. He still typically takes batting practice in the cage rather than on the field, because he feels more focused on his up-the-middle approach when he's not tempted to swing for the fences. He's very much a see-and-react hitter, but he has nonetheless developed an advanced approach, as he made clear when discussing Tuesday's game-winner.

"Off the bat, I knew I hit it well," Verdugo said. "The ball just kind of kept carrying and I was fortunate to get it over the fence. The thought process behind that at-bat was, the at-bat before, I chased an off-speed pitch and hit it weakly to first base and my goal was just basically, let the ball get deep, let it travel, and try to stay up the middle as best I could."

Then came the celebration. Verdugo was fired up, and that joy is contagious. He's exactly the right player for the 2021 Red Sox.

"He's been doing that a lot this season," Cora said. "He did it a lot last year for this team. The difference is now we're in this situation and people can talk about Alex."