This was the worst (Part 1): It is a scoreless tie, two outs, bottom of the fourth inning with A.J. Pierzynski up and first base open. The Cubs elect to walk Pierzynski (armed with a .252 average, .281 OBP and .353 slugging mark entering Tuesday) intentionally in order to bring Xander Bogaerts to the plate, likely the first such indignity in the 21-year-old's life.
This was the worst (Part 2): Bogaerts had looked bad in striking out in his first plate appearance against Edwin Jackson. This time, he lays off a curveball-slider-curveball sequence to get ahead, 2-1, and earn his fastball. Bogaerts jumps on the pitch, barreling the 95 mph heater over the plate and sending a rocket screaming to center. Center fielder Justin Ruggiano gets turned around as he sprints back, but he ultimately turns just in time to make a leaping stab, robbing Bogaerts of a potential one- or two-run double.
The phenom, for whom such contact has been rare in recent weeks, tips his head back in agony, a pained acknowledgment that even the good at-bats are ending in disappointment.
It is hours before the first pitch at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, and Bogaerts is taking stock of both his plight and the broader challenge of his chosen craft. Mookie Betts has been called up, a player whom Bogaerts recalled meeting in Single-A Greenville in 2011, shortly after the Sox had taken the athletic middle-of-the-field player with their fifth-round pick but before Betts had elected to sign.
Betts was born on Oct. 7, 1992, six days after Bogaerts.
"I guess I'm not the youngest one any more," Bogaerts said with a chuckle, an acknowledgment that, for the first time in his career playing baseball in the States, he won't be the youngest player on his team.
The arrival of Betts offers a reminder. Bogaerts now has a slightly better understanding of what his fellow phenom will face, of the unprecedented challenge that awaits.
The fast track that elite prospects take to the big leagues can be, at times, a mixed blessing. All the way through the minors, there's a talent separation for such players from their peers, to the point where they blitz from one level to the next without struggling.
But that sort of straight-line ascension can't continue forever, not by the time players are surrounded by others who likewise dominated on their way through the minors. There is a leveling out that occurs in the big leagues, which means that, for the first time, players who arrive at the highest level without struggling must experience adversity on the biggest and most public stage. That, of course, is happening with Bogaerts right now, creating questions about who he is now, who he might become later that didn't exist a month ago.
A scout takes note of the dialogue with amusement.
"There is nothing wrong with him," says the evaluator, pausing. "Nothing."
There is no fatal flaw, the scout adds, only a commonplace period of struggle. Those happen to young players. Those happen to veteran stars.
Bogaerts still possesses the tools of superstardom, and, for that matter, the track record. The worst month of Bogaerts' professional career has done nothing to change that.
But that doesn't alter the fact that what Bogaerts is going through is unfamiliar, both for those who are watching him and for the player himself.
"In the minor leagues, I went through a few slumps and no one pretty much hears about it. But being in the big leagues, on the biggest stage, that's why a lot of headlines come into this," said Bogaerts. "That makes it bigger.
"Sometimes it's tough, struggling this long. I don't know how long it's been, but it's been a while since I got two hits in a game. I don't know how long. Close to a month I haven't gotten two hits in a game. It's not easy, but this is what I'm dealt with. This is the situation I'm in. Keep grinding until you turn things around."
It has been 20 games since Bogaerts had his last multi-hit game. His numbers during that time are horrendous. He's 6-for-73 with one extra-base hit (a homer on June 13), three walks and 21 strikeouts, leaving him with a line of: .082 average, .117 OBP and .123 slugging mark. He's endured an 0-for-19 stretch from June 8-13, and 0-for-16 from June 18-22, and 0-for-19 from June 24 through last night's 0-for-4 contest.
Perhaps most strikingly, the patience and pitch recognition that seemed like such a defining hallmark of Bogaerts' game last year during the World Series has been nowhere in evidence.
It seems as if he's swinging (and missing) at every slider that ducks out of the strike zone, his weight shifting too early from his back foot to his front. The usual syncing of his swing, the upper body working in perfect concert with his lower half to create both pitch recognition/plate discipline as well as the insane bat speed to impact the ball, is not present.
The walks that helped to make him one of the top on-base guys in the big leagues through early June have stopped cold. In his last eight games he has nine strikeouts and no walks; he has 16 punchouts and one walk in his last 15 games and a 21-to-3 ratio in his last 20 games.
"I think more than anything he’s rushing a little bit in the box, rushing out to his landing, and whether that allows him to see the ball clearly in flight, that’s where you see that early commitment, and the slider is probably giving him a little bit of trouble right now," said manager John Farrell.
Bogaerts is aware of those issues and working to correct them. But the effort to do so can make a swing that seemed like the most natural and fluid one in the world a bit forced.
"He's focused on results and really getting away from his approach," said assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez. "He's working on the right things -- staying back, letting the ball travel, staying in the big part of the field. That's what he does. But when the game starts, he's drifting, around the ball, not seeing the ball good. I told him it's going to take time, it's going to take repetition and mostly, it's going to take trust -- trust in his ability to hit.
"When you are searching and you are not comfortable, everything looks uncomfortable. I think that's where he is."
There is frustration to the discomfort. After all, Bogaerts says that he's seeing plenty of pitches to hit, and he's simply missing them. Yes, he's been getting beaten by sliders, but he's also fouling off or popping up fastballs down the gut in fastball counts. His swing isn't firing on the customary cylinders.
"It's not like I'm not getting good pitches to hit. I am," said Bogaerts. "My top hand isn't working the way I want it to, so everything is more like an uppercut swing. I'm trying to get that back, and once I get that back I can start rolling.
"At least the thing is I know why I'm going through this. As I said, my hand is, it's just falling off. Everything just seems to go up [for a] foul ball. I look at some of my swings and it's just the ball is coming and my bat is right under it, so there's no chance that my bat can square it up," he adds with a clap. "That's what I've got to get to, squaring up the balls again. ... I don't think [it's because of anything physically wrong]. It's just, I don't know, it's weird. It's just, once I get this top hand working more, I'll be able to barrel up the ball much more."
It is all the more puzzling because Bogaerts doesn't have a comparable experience upon which to draw -- whether the stage or the actual depth of the struggles. Asked about similar instances of offensive challenges, he recalls May 2012 in High-A Salem -- a month in which he hit .258 with a .308 OBP, a .381 slugging mark, six walks and 24 strikeouts.
Otherwise, there isn't much to talk about -- he went 1-for-34 in July 2010 in High-A Greenville, a month in which he ended up hitting .207 with a .290 OBP but with seven homers that yielded a .494 slugging mark; he hit .171 through his first nine games in Double-A Portland last year before he got scorching hot to set in motion a year that culminated with him being the Red Sox' second-best hitter in the postseason.
He has never dealt with the kind of performance struggles in which he's now mired. He's never dealt with the dimensions of his current mechanical imprecision.
"Pretty much my whole career I've had the same swing, and trying to find that swing back again, it's easier said than done," said Bogaerts. "It's not easy. The pitching here is good. Definitely being in the big leagues, everything is a lot better pitching-wise, stuff-wise, location-wise. As I said, I feel once I can get more down to the ball I'll be pretty much better, but it's not easy, it's not fun, but I keep working at it every day."
It happens. It's a reality that even the best must confront.
Mike Trout, in his big league debut as a 19-year-old in 2011, hit .163 with a .213 OBP and .279 slugging mark in 14 games preceding his rapid return to the minors.
Manny Ramirez, who debuted with the Indians at 21, hit .170 with a .200 OBP and .302 slugging mark in his first month in the big leagues.
Indeed, Bogaerts' numbers through his first 97 career games compare favorably to those of plenty of 21-year-olds, including Hall of Famers. He owns a .246 average, .324 OBP and .370 slugging percentage -- marks that seem modest but that are more than solid for 21-year-olds, that stand out as superior to numerous eventual Hall of Famers.
A small sampling of players in their first 100 games:
George Brett hit .247/.286/.334 in his first 100 games.
Robin Yount hit .245/.272/.345.
Carl Yastrzemski hit .252/.309/.359.
Gary Sheffield hit .254/.315/.358.
Cal Ripken hit .250/.289/.432.
Al Kaline hit .248/.281/.296.
Roberto Clemente hit .249/.280/.363.
(Random member of the group: Danny Ainge hit .241/.272/.292 in his first 100 games, all of which came before he turned 22.)
There are others. Of course, there are likewise players who excelled to start their careers, players like Albert Pujols and Jimmie Foxx and others didn't wait to start on their Hall of Fame tracks, but history suggests that career-opening struggles along the lines of what Bogaerts has encountered at this early stage are far from rare, even for players who eventually are great. In short, Bogaerts' current struggles should do little to alter his long-term outlook.
But that comes as little consolation for a player who is trying to make sense of something he has never before experienced, and for whom -- for the first time in his career -- success and failure are measured not just at the individual level but also on the impact that they have on his team's success. The Red Sox need offense, and Bogaerts has been part of the problem.
And so it is difficult to see the silver linings in a game when he goes 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts, and the one ball he scorches finds its way into an outfielder's glove, whether against the Cubs on Tuesday or the warning track fly balls he hit against the A's and Mariners on the recent road trip.
"I'm like, 'You can't catch a break,' " Bogaerts said over the weekend, shaking his head -- a posture he resumed on the field Tuesday night when Ruggiano caught his screamer. He tries to maintain perspective and a healthy outlook through the stretch, understanding that it's possible to be a better player now than he was a year ago (when he was in Pawtucket), even if his statistics no longer point to dominance.
"Numbers-wise I was probably better last year. But mentally I think I'm much better this year," said Bogaerts. "I'm going through this right now, and every day I come to the park excited to play and try to help the team out. I mean, it's not easy when you're going through something like this. Sometimes I imagine guys come to a park and just know that you're not going to get any hits.
"[But] you had success so you know you can do it. It's just, sometimes when things aren't going good, a lot of things get pointed out at you," added Bogaerts. "Sometimes it's just baseball. Guys go through struggles. I'm not the first and I definitely won't be the last one to go through something like this. It's just reality and you keep fighting, you keep battling until you turn things around.
"I feel every day like today can be the day. You're just one swing away," he concluded. "It just hasn't worked out that way so far."
There is no magical answer. Bogaerts simply must work -- and wait. At 21, being patient for success is an unfamiliar undertaking.