Squeezing his personality into the staid confines of a baseball clubhouse hasn't always come easily to Alex Verdugo, a smiling, tattooed Arizonan who exudes exuberance in a sport that prizes conformity.
During brief stints with the Dodgers in 2017 and 2018, Verdugo tried to play the role of anonymous private, fitting himself for a figurative straitjacket and silencing his natural extroversion. He hit .240 in 52 games.
But that changed last year when he made the team out of spring training and was finally able to show the Dodgers what he was really about.
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Just two weeks into the season, he found himself preparing to step in against Reds left-hander Zach Duke following an intentional walk of Kiki Hernandez in the seventh inning. Before leaving the dugout, he turned to manager Dave Roberts.
"Don't worry, baby," Verdugo said, per the L.A. Times. "I got you. I got you."
Five pitches later, Verdugo rocketed a two-run double to left-center for his third hit of the night. As he celebrated on second base, he screamed to the Dodgers dugout words that would end up emblazoned on t-shirts.
"Don't let the kid get hot!"
Over a year later, the Red Sox plan on letting Verdugo cut loose. The 24-year-old arrived at the start of spring training as the centerpiece of the trade that sent former MVP Mookie Betts to the Dodgers, and the Red Sox need him to hit the ground running after his spring was curtailed by a fracture in his back that has finally healed.
Early in this truncated second spring, Verdugo is opening eyes.
"He was hitting the ball pretty good, to be honest," said shortstop Xander Bogaerts after a recent batting practice session. "I was watching him from on top of my suite. He came here, he was hurt, he was getting treatment, so I didn't see a lot of him while he was with us. But he seems pretty good and obviously needs to be a guy we can lean on. And he's healthy. The more guys who are healthy the better."
A consensus top-35 prospect after being selected in the second round of the 2014 draft, Verdugo reached the big leagues on the strength of a well-rounded game. The left-handed hitter has line drive power to all fields, and after never tallying more than 13 homers in a season in the minors, he delivered 12 in the big leagues in 106 games last year before shutting it down with a back injury.
He also hit lefties (.327) better than righties (.281), while posting almost the exact same OPS on the road (.819) as at home (.816). He showed off an arm that rivals teammate Jackie Bradley Jr. All told, he hit .294 with an .817 OPS, showing enough potential for the Red Sox to build a Betts trade around him and give him a shot at being an everyday player.
"Coming from the Dodgers, they were really big on pontooning, platooning, whatever you want to call it," Verdugo said. "For me, I'm an everyday player. That's just that. It's that simple. There's no ifs, ands or buts about it. I want to be out there every day competing, no matter if it's a righty or lefty on the mound. I feel like my splits are reversed. I hit lefties better than I hit righties. I want to be a starter, that's what everybody comes in the big leagues for, what everybody wants to be. But they can do whatever they want to do and I'll follow. I'll play as hard as I can."
The Red Sox suspect that Verdugo could become a fan favorite, which is why they handed him a camera during spring training in February to shoot some behind-the-scenes footage highlighting his personality.
Fans weren't sure exactly what to think, since Verdugo arrived with questions over his proximity to a sexual assault during his minor league days in 2015, questions Verdugo addressed early in camp. He faced no charges after a 17-year-old girl accused one of Verdugo's teammates of sexual assault.
"With that incident, there were a lot of reports, and obviously my name being mentioned in the allegations, it hurts," Verdugo said in February. "It really does hurt. It's hard. I don't want Boston fans or people to judge me on something they've read or seen posted. I know who I am. I know what I believe in. I know my family values. It's extremely hard to have to deal with that. You obviously have a lot of mixed-up views on it. I was cleared of any wrongdoing. That being said, it's a terrible thing that happened. It was in the past. I've learned from it. I've grown from it."
Now he turns his attention to the field. Verdugo's walkup music is "Volver, Volver," Vicente Fernandez's 1972 hit. Verdugo plays the song, a favorite of his dad, to honor his Mexican heritage.
L.A. crowds loved it, turning Verdugo's at-bats into a party. He can only hope Red Sox fans come to view him similarly.
"Boston was my favorite team growing up and this is one of the most historic franchises out there," Verdugo said. "To be able to call this my home ballpark, to be able to practice and play, it's special and fun and I look forward to doing it one day with a lot of fans out there."