Alex Verdugo needs to play every day.
The entire starting outfield has scuffled during this young season, but there are better candidates to sit against left-handers than the centerpiece of the Mookie Betts trade.
Left fielder Andrew Benintendi is batting .069, an average not even Rob Gronkowski could love. Center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. opened the season poised to embark on one of his patented month-long runs, but the good times only lasted three games, because his average has fallen from .636 to .273.
Neither one of them started on Wednesday night against Tampa left-hander Ryan Yarbrough, but Verdugo did. And he rewarded the faith of manager Ron Roenicke with the first home run and first extra-base hit of his Red Sox career, a two-run blast that kickstarted a 5-0 victory.
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A year after hitting .327 against southpaws, Verdugo has found himself on the bench against them, a point he admits needling Roenicke about. With Benintendi barely putting the ball in play and Bradley hitting .091 since his torrid start, there was no sense sitting Verdugo.
"I just mess around with him," Verdugo said. "It's one of those things when I'm not in there against a lefty I'm like, 'Hey, Ron, I can hit them.' But I think he knows it, too. I think he also knows when players are pressing, so he's doing his job, he's doing what he has to do."
Verdugo's slow start shouldn't be a surprise. He's coming off a back injury that not only robbed him of the final two months of 2019, but also most of his offseason conditioning work. Only when he joined the Red Sox was he officially diagnosed with a stress fracture in the L5 vertebrae of his lower back.
He spent most of spring training 2.0 rolling over to second and doing little to hide his frustration. He went 3-for-4 on opening day before dropping into a 4-for-24 slump that ended with Wednesday's two-run homer, giving the Red Sox a rare early lead in the fourth that starter Martin Perez and the bullpen made stand during a four-hit shutout.
"I mean, we need that guy," Perez said. "He got amazing talent, and I think he just needs to believe more in himself, and good things are coming, man. I know it's hard when you're not hitting good and you're not pitching good, but I think when hard times come is when you need to believe a little bit more, and he's getting there. As soon as he gets hot, we're going to be fine."
Let's hope this is the start of him playing every day, because he's a bigger part of the future than either of his outfield mates. Bradley will be a free agent this winter, and Benintendi is looking more and more like a change-of-scenery candidate himself as struggles dating back to the 2018 All-Star break show no signs of abating.
Only two years after winning the World Series, the Red Sox are short not only on high-end talent, but especially young high-end talent. The 24-year-old Verdugo certainly qualifies, and he should be a linchpin moving forward of a lineup built around Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts. He's easily the highest-energy of the three, and there's a place for that, too.
Maybe Wednesday's home run is the start of something lasting.
"It felt amazing," Verdugo said. "I think it's pretty obvious a lot of us are kind of going through it right now, trying to find our swings, and there's a lot of new things in baseball with not being able to see the videos until after the game and all that so usually the in-game adjustments have been hard. But yeah, it felt really good to finally be able to stay on one, to stay through it and to get one out."