The July day began with a chill, overhung with clouds like a dusty mirror. Unlike a typical summer day in northern Rhode Island, the clouds remained overhead, threatening today’s ballgame with the possibility of rain. Ruining an escape from the doldrums of the usual home routines: some mix of television, social media, and video games. As my friend picked me up to go, we were looking forward to seeing the game, despite a winding, slithering path to McCoy Stadium due to the small capacity of its primary parking lots.
Eventually, we reached our seats by following the decorations surrounding various Pawtucket Red Sox alumni, as well as a cascading, wall-bending replica scoreboard of the 33-inning game played at this very park. To tide over some post-lunch hunger, some concessions orders were placed, and enjoyed during the Pawsox Hall of Fame inductions of Joe Morgan and Mo Vaughn, in a generous ceremony thanking, what seemed like, every member of the Red Sox organization along the way.
Upon reviewing both rosters of players earlier in the day, and reading Fangraphs’ analysis of both Pawtucket and Norfolk, I was most interested in tracking two players in particular: Pitcher Brian Johnson, given his moderate success at the Major League level earlier this season, and of course, Rafael Devers. Prior to the season, Devers was rated as Boston’s second-best prospect (behind #1 Andrew Benintendi), and #19 overall, by Fangraphs’ KATOH+, and drew comparisons to Eric Chavez in Eric Longenhagen’s estimates. As the lineups were announced after the celebration and hoopla, it appeared that Devers was the most celebrated in the lineup, based on the additional cheers. My seats were as close to Devers as possible – intentionally so: directly overlooking third, second row, and nobody was blocking my viewing angle.
While the chilly day quickly grew into gentle warmth with a light breeze, the dark clouds of back to back home runs in the first (because of leaving too many breaking pitches up) indicated that the day would quickly not be Brian Johnson’s. As would be expected, my primary focus turned to seeing the jewel of the Boston farm, Devers. Unfortunately, to begin the second, Youngstown State product Drew Dosch hit a groundball to third. This would be my first opportunity to see Devers’ glove, which had been praised by such individuals as the Boston Globe’s Alex Speier, who used terms such as ‘future plus’ to describe him. However, despite a clean pick of the ball, the transfer lacked fluidity, as Devers may have looked up a millisecond too early, causing the ball to go a few inches too low in front of the outstretched glove of first baseman Sam Travis, allowing Dosch to reach safely.
Three batters later, and the top of the second was complete without any further damage; the score remained 2-0. It was just about time for the quick wrists and fluid swing of the Sanchez, Dominican Republic native, who was in the hole. Following a meek ground out by Bryce Brentz, and a strikeout on a mere three pitches to Matt Dominguez, it was time. While the majority of the crowd seemed more interested in their phones and the on-field gimmicks, this was why I paid the price of admission. The 20-year-old immediately impressed, pulling the first pitch he saw into right field for the first Pawtucket runner of the day. It was easy to discern how effortlessly effective his stroke is.
Scoring was anything but routine for the local nine, much to the dismay of the crowd. However, Devers came to the plate at a then-crucial point in the contest, in the bottom of the 4th – Norfolk leading by three. Matt Dominguez was on first and Sam Travis on second, both with slight leads. Once again, much to my and the crowd’s delight, Devers wasted no time. He attacked the first Gabriel Ynoa pitch he saw, and laced the ball straight up the middle, for what wound up being Pawtucket’s only hit (out of 10) with a runner in scoring position the entire contest. While the result may have been successful for Devers, it was not for the club on the whole, as a strike to home plate from centerfielder Logan Schafer to Francisco Peña gunned down Travis by a step, which deflated the crowd like a tattered basketball.
Devers was also successful in his next at-bat, which re-energized the crowd who were looking for $2 off concessions, should any home player successfully knock a base hit in the bottom of the sixth. Following a ball hit straight up the elevator shaft by Matt Dominguez to begin the frame, Ynoa was replaced in favor of former Yankee farmhand Matt Wotherspoon. The ex-PawSox skipper Ron Johnson had seen Devers beat him too many times, and put on the full shift, predicting he would pull the ball as he had in his first at-bat. While speed isn’t considered part of his game, Devers merely teased Norfolk again, getting another first pitch single. Three hits on three pitches. But this was no mere single. Rather, spying the third base bag entirely empty, Devers laid down a perfect bunt down the third base line. With the base uncovered, he made it to first safely, for impressive fundamentals and situational baseball displayed in the entirety of one pitch, to the delight and rare joy of the McCoy attendees.
Despite the shutout, hope remained within pockets of the Pawtucket faithful, including yours truly, because in the bottom of the eighth inning Devers would face Norfolk save leader Jimmy Yacabonis. Once again, Devers would have runners on first and second. Much like the first three at-bats, he swung at, and made contact with the first pitch, a low two-seamer, Yacabonis trying to induce ground ball contact for a potential double play. Unlike before however, this was no soft bunt, line drive, or ground ball. Instead, this was a soaring arch into straightaway deep center field that had many fans fooled into thinking it was a three-run home run, given Schafer’s hasty retreat to the center field fence. Instead, the ball was caught a few steps away from the wall, with surprisingly no tag-up by the lead runner, left fielder Bryce Brentz. This ended Devers’ day in Pawtucket, with no additional chance to field balls in the top of the ninth, nor any chance for further heroics in the bottom half of the same inning.
It was impossible to be unimpressed with the compact swing, its efficiency, the range of balls hit, and his ability to adapt to the situation at any given moment. Little did we know at the time that Devers would be called up to the major league ballclub shortly after the game, and was a prize well earned by Devers. I was quite lucky as a fan to see, quite possibly, his final minor league appearance. As for Devers himself, congratulations are in order. Perhaps the words of British actress Katrina Kaif apply best to Devers: “Going by my past journey, I am not certain where life will take me, what turns and twists will happen; nobody knows where they will end up. As life changes direction, I’ll flow with it.”