Mookie Betts celebrates his second-inning grand slam, Friday night. (Getty Images)

Mookie Betts celebrates his second-inning grand slam, Friday night. (Getty Images)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Mookie Betts is the one guy who is remaining true to the script.

With the player many perceive as the starting center fielder for the 2015 Red Sox — Rusney Castillo — ready to make his professional debut a couple of hours away in Fort Myers, Sunday, the guy who is making a pretty powerful impression at the position continued pushing his stock upward, Friday night.

Betts one of the few highly-touted Sox youngsters to actually offer the kind of standout performances once expected of Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley, Will Middlebrooks and a cavalcade of young pitchers. The 21-year-old’s latest separator? A second-inning grand slam, making the outfielder the youngest Red Sox player to go deep with the bases loaded since a 20-year-old Tony Congliaro’s grand slam on Aug. 24, 1965.

(It was also Betts’ first grand slam as a professional.)

Just for good measure, Betts continued his ascension as a legitimate big league outfield by robbing Kevin Kiermaier of extra bases in the fifth inning with a leaping catch just before the center field wall.

The grand slam was the signature blow for the Red Sox in their 8-4 win over the Rays. It also played a key role in a pair of innings in which the visitors batted around  the order in the first two frames of a game for the first time since Aug. 14, 1962.

Coming into the series opener, Betts’ numbers since his most recent call-up weren’t electric, totaling a .242 batting average, .390 on-base percentage and .784 OPS. But what offered encouragement even before the grand slam was how his approach had remained consistent from when he tore through the minors.

Betts has been successful in all three of his stolen base attempts, while drawing two more walks than strikeouts (8-6). He has also shown an ability to make adjustments, going 4-for-10 with a walk when facing a pitcher for a third time in any one game.

If one Red Sox youngster was to be identified as giving off the impression of a viable major leaguer for ’15, it’s Betts.

Also of note …

- Daniel Nava stole third with the Red Sox carrying an 8-3 lead in the seventh inning. It was the same exact score (with the Rays winning) and inning Yunel Escobar executed such a steal on May 25, leading to a bench-clearing fracas between the teams.

- Starter Anthony Ranaudo was solid in his third major league start, allowing three runs on five hits, striking out four and walking three in six innings. He finished throwing 99 pitches. In 18 big league innings, the righty has given up nine runs, improving to 3-0.

- Yoenis Cespedes had two more RBI (along with a pair of hits) to give him 22 in 25 games with the Red Sox.

Blog Author: 
Rob Bradford

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Xander Bogaerts is ready to return.

Xander Bogaerts

Xander Bogaerts

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Xander Bogaerts is ready to return.

The Red Sox shortstop  – who had been placed on the seven-day concussion disabled list after being hit in the head with a Felix Hernandez change-up Aug. 22 —  is scheduled to return to the team’€™s starting lineup, Saturday.

“I really didn’€™t have too many symptoms,” Bogaerts said prior to Friday night’€™s game at Tropicana Field. “The only symptom I pretty much had was tiredness ‘€” like sleepy. Everything I did, I would just get sleepy. Maybe that’€™s because I wasn’€™t doing any baseball activities. Maybe it could have been the symptoms, too. The sleepiness is all I kind of got. No headaches, no anything like that.

“I took all my tests, I did pretty good. I didn’€™t have any problems with memory or focus, just a little bit of tiredness.”

Bogaerts said he adhered to doctor’€™s orders and refrained from much activity, letting the symptoms subside.

“Yeah, I just stayed at home and rested like the doctors said,” said Bogaerts, who wasn’€™t with the team during its series in Toronto. “I watched the games. That’€™s all I did. Obviously I couldn’€™t play or do any baseball activities, so I just tried to relax.”

Prior to his hiatus, Bogaerts was in the midst of a significant slump, having one hit in his last 23 at-bats. In 118 games this season, the shortstop is hitting .227 with a .627 OPS.

“Hopefully it benefits me,” he said of the time off. “I got some rest — rest that I needed. Ill try to finish the season strong.”

Blog Author: 
Rob Bradford
Chris Archer

Chris Archer

With the Red Sox and Rays holding firm in the bottom two spots in the American League East, Friday’s game in St. Petersburg, Florida, holds little importance in terms of postseason implications. However, with Chris Archer on the mound for Tampa — opposite young Sox hurler Anthony Ranaudo — there could be some intensity to the series opener.

When Archer (8-6, 3.09 ERA) last faced the Sox on July 27, he surrendered a three-run home run to David Ortiz and lost the game 3-2. Afterward, Archer echoed then-teammate David Price‘s assertion that Ortiz “feels like he’s bigger than the game” because the slugger “pimped a home run off me.”

Ortiz, who is 5-for-12 against Archer, said the 25-year-old is “not the right guy to be saying that. I don’t think, you know, you’ve got two days in the league, you can’t be just [whining] and complaining about [expletive] like that.”

Archer has struggled again the Sox, going 1-3 with a 4.75 ERA in six career starts, but he’s pitched well of late. When he held the Blue Jays to one run over seven innings in his last outing Sunday, it was his eighth quality start in 10 appearances. He has a 1.40 ERA and 30 strikeouts over his last four appearances, encompassing 25 2/3 innings.

Ranaudo (2-0, 4.50) will be called up from Triple-A to pitch in Friday’s game. The 24-year-old last pitched in the majors Aug. 13, allowing four runs in six innings to the Reds.

On Tuesday Ranaudo was named the International League‘s Most Valuable Player. He is 14-4 with a 2.61 ERA in 24 starts for Pawtucket.

Red Sox vs. Archer (RHP)

Dustin Pedroia (17 plate appearances): .231/.353/.231, 2 RBIs, 3 walks, 4 strikeouts

David Ortiz (14): .417/.500/.667, 1 HR, 8 RBIs, 2 walks, 2 strikeouts

Mike Napoli (11): 100/.182/.100, 1 RBI, 1 walk, 6 strikeouts

Daniel Nava (11): .429/.636/.857, 1 HR, 2 RBIs, 4 walks, 2 strikeouts

Brock Holt (6): .167/.167/.333, 1 double, 1 strikeout

Will Middlebrooks (6): .000/.667/.000, 4 walks

Kelly Johnson (5): .250/.400/.500, 1 double, 1 RBI, 1 walk

Christian Vazquez (3): 333/.333/.333

Rays vs. Ranaudo (RHP)

No Rays batters have faced Ranaudo.

Blog Author: 
WEEI
Left-hander Brian Johnson wrapped up his regular season with a 1.75 ERA in Double-A Portland. (365DigitalPhotography.com / Portland Sea Dogs)

Left-hander Brian Johnson wrapped up his regular season with a 1.75 ERA in Double-A Portland. (365DigitalPhotography.com / Portland Sea Dogs)

Left-hander Brian Johnson, in a five-inning tuneup outing for Double-A Portland before the start of the playoffs, was once again dominant, tossing five shutout innings in which he allowed two hits (both singles), didn’t walk anyone, struck out a batter and elicited 10 groundball outs. He retired 13 straight at one point.

The outing represented a continuation of a completely dominant five weeks. In his last six starts, Johnson has four outings of two or fewer hits allowed (three in which he’s given up just one hit) with a 0.67 ERA, 37 strikeouts, 10 walks and a staggering .093 batting average against.

Of course, those totals didn’t even represent that drastic a departure from the season for a pitcher whose 1.75 ERA is far and away the best in the Eastern League (the second-best mark is 2.55, with Eastern League Pitcher of the Year Henry Owens ranking third with a 2.60 mark).

Between High-A Salem and Double-A Portland, Johnson went 13-3 with a 2.13 ERA, 8.3 strikeouts and 2.4 walks per nine innings. Perhaps more significantly, he’s logged 143 2/3 innings, up 69 percent from the 85 frames he was able to pitch in 2013 when he missed roughly two months with shoulder tendinitis, following an offseason where he couldn’t have a normal offseason conditioning program while rehabbing from a line drive off the face that prevented him from eating solids for months and from being able to work out for much of the winter.

But with a healthy winter this past offseason, the 23-year-old looked like the pitcher whom the Red Sox hoped to see when they drafted him in the first round in 2012. With health, he showed a consistent delivery that permitted him to thrive based on his feel for pitching and precise execution that was second to none in the organization. His changeup made considerable strides, to the point where he had a fairly complete mix (fastball, curve, change, sometimes a cutter/slider) that permitted him to attack every part of the strike zone, with dazzling results.

In his last 22 starts of the year between Salem and Portland, he permitted more than two earned runs just once. While Owens was named the Eastern League Pitcher of the Year and Anthony Ranaudo was named the International League Pitcher of the Year, Johnson had the best season of any pitcher in the Red Sox organization. He is WEEI.com’s 2014 Red Sox Pitching Prospect of the Year.

PROGRAMMING NOTE: Johnson will join Down on the Farm on Sunday morning from 8:30-9 a.m. to take stock of his 2014 season. The program will also feature an interview with the Red Sox Prospect Player of the Year.

A brief look at rest of the action in the Red Sox farm system on Thursday:

TRIPLE-A PAWTUCKET RED SOX: 8-5 WIN AT LEHIGH VALLEY (PHILLIES)

(BOX)

Garin Cecchini: Streaking. Cecchini went 2-for-4 with a walk, giving his three straight multi-hit games. Over 18 games since August 9, he’s raised his batting average by 28 points (.236 to .264), his OBP by 29 points (.314 to .343) and his slugging mark by 48 points (.327 to .375).

Blake Swihart went 2-for-5 with a double, his fourth multi-hit game in 16 contests since his promotion to Pawtucket. He’s hitting .254/.277/.381 in Pawtucket.

– Despite permitting six baserunners (four hits, two walks) in just 1 2/3 innings, left-hander Drake Britton managed to navigate through his fourth straight scoreless appearance, his longest such stretch since he reeled off six straight scoreless appearances in April. The 25-year-old has lowered his ERA from 6.98 to 6.07 during the run.

– Left-hander Ryan Verdugo, pushed into a spot start with the Sox’ decision to call up Anthony Ranaudo to start Friday’s game, punched out eight (his most in 10 games with the PawSox, and his second highest total overall this year, surpassed only by the nine he struck out while still with the Royals’ Triple-A affiliate) while allowing three runs on six hits and three walks in 4 2/3 innings. Verdugo is 2-1 with a 3.45 ERA and a hefty 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings since the PawSox acquired him. Lefties are hitting .185 against him with 11 punchouts in 31 plate appearances.

– Center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. went 2-for-5 with a walk and two strikeouts. It was his second multi-hit game in three contests and his fourth in 11 games since being sent down, improving his line to .222/.250/.296.

DOUBLE-A PORTLAND SEA DOGS: 3-1 LOSS VS. READING (PHILLIES)

(BOX)

– Corner outfielder Keury De La Cruz rebounded from a pair of hitless games by going 3-for-4, his ninth multi-hit game in August. He’s hitting .349/.421/.578 with four homers and seven doubles this month.

– Manager Billy McMillon was named the Eastern League Manager of the Year, the first time since 1996 that a Sea Dogs manager had been so honored. More of McMillon’s impressive managerial track record can be found here.

HIGH-A SALEM RED SOX: 10-3 LOSS AT FREDERICK (ORIOLES)

(BOX)

– Left-hander Cody Kukuk once again proved unable to find the strike zone, allowing five runs on six hits and five walks in just 3 2/3 innings. He punched out three. Kukuk has five straight outings of at least four walks, and in 20 starts this year with Salem (after a promotion following five starts in Greenville), the 21-year-old with head-turning stuff is 4-7 with a 5.26 ERA, 10.0 strikeouts and 8.1 walks per nine innings. That’s roughly in line with a 2013 campaign in Greenville where Kukuk likewise showed swing-and-miss stuff (9.5 strikeouts per nine) but an inability to harness it (6.8 walks per nine). And so, for the second year running, he displays the greatest disparity between ceiling and floor of any pitcher in the Red Sox system.

– Outfielder Matty Johnson went 1-for-3 with a pair of walks. He has now reached base in 30 straight games. During that time, the speedy 26-year-old is hitting .365/.455/.522. For the year, in 127 games, he’s hitting .281/.380/.381.

SINGLE-A GREENVILLE DRIVE: 10-0 LOSS AT CHARLESTON (YANKEES)

(BOX)

– In a dismal final note for what has been a surprisingly difficult year, right-hander Jamie Callahan recorded just two outs, allowing five runs on three hits and three walks, before getting lifted when his pitch count hit 40 (with just 19 of those pitches going for strikes). Callahan, who turned 20 on Sunday, wraps up his year with a 3-13 record, 6.96 ERA, 7.4 strikeouts per nine innings and 5.4 walks per nine, with opponents hitting .309 against him.

Callahan has two things working in his favor: Age (he was among the youngest starters in the South Atlantic League) and durability (he made all 25 of his starts). So, even though he’ll almost surely be in a position to repeat in Greenville next year, time remains, to some degree, on his side as he seeks to resurrect his prospect status.

SHORT-SEASON SINGLE-A LOWELL SPINNERS: 13-1 WIN VS. ABERDEEN (ORIOLES)

(BOX)

– Left-hander Jake Drehoff was once again dominant, tossing six shutout innings in which he punched out a season-high eight and walked none. The 22-year-old has allowed two or fewer runs in each of his last six outings, with a 1.06 ERA in that span. In his last two outings, he has 13 innings without an earned run.

– Shortstop Mauricio Dubon went 2-for-4 with a pair of singles and a walk, improving to .311/.331/.387 in 62 games this year. The 20-year-old is hitting .366/.365/.415 in August, though his hot stretch requires this asterisk: The walk he elicited on Thursday was his first of the month against 13 strikeouts.

– Third baseman Jordan Betts went 2-for-4 with a double, giving the strong third baseman with above-average power 27 extra-base hits in 60 games in his pro debut. The 22-year-old Duke product is hitting .274/.337/.482 in his pro debut, with his slugging mark ranking sixth in the New York-Penn League.

ROOKIE LEVEL GULF COAST LEAGUE RED SOX: 8-5 WIN VS. GCL ORIOLES

(BOX)

– First-rounder Michael Chavis went 2-for-4 with a double and a walk. In August, he’s hitting .372 (5th in the GCL) with a .430 OBP (6th in the GCL), .590 slugging mark (3rd) and 12 extra-base hits (tied for second). Chavis, who just turned 19, has performed as one of the best players in his league in his pro debut for the past month, thus balancing out a tough transition to pro ball in July and improving his overall line to .269/.347/.425.

Luis Alexander Basabe went 2-for-3 with a pair of doubles and two walks. Basabe, who turned 18 on Tuesday, has shown intriguing flashes of both an approach and the ability to drive the ball this year, both in the DSL (where he hit .284/.408/.480) and the GCL (.248/.328/.324) with both eye-catching athleticism and the ability to grow into more strength and power.

Blog Author: 
Alex Speier

Finding out Yoenis Cespedes' potential has to be a priority for the Red Sox. (AP)There has been plenty of talk about the newest Red Sox' mystery man, Rusney Castillo. Rightfully so.



ROB BRADFORD

BIO | ARCHIVE | FULL COUNT BLOG


Allen Craig has yet to show it to Red Sox fans, but he has a history of reliable production. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

Allen Craig has yet to show it to Red Sox fans, but he has a history of reliable production at the plate. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

Jeff Luhnow is leaning against the padded railing at the top of the visiting team’s dugout at Fenway Park, looking on as the Red Sox take batting practice on the field. It’s a Saturday evening in mid-August, and the Astros general manager is in town to watch his team play the third game of a four-game series in Boston.

Within shouting distance is Allen Craig, who is sporting a red jacket with “Red Sox” emblazoned across the chest. Craig quietly works out alone, unnoticed and unbothered. He is testing out the left ankle he tweaked while running over first base in his Red Sox debut Aug. 1. He rounds third base and heads toward home. He begins shuffling down the third base line and back. He’s preparing himself for a short rehab stint in Pawtucket that will begin two days later.

It’s a simple exercise that doesn’t garner attention. But Craig’s obscurity is prominent as Luhnow reflects on arguably one of his greatest discoveries as the Cardinals’ scouting director.

Luhnow recalls a conversation with Mark DeJohn in the summer of 2006. DeJohn then was the manager of the State College Spikes, St Louis’ Class-A short-season affiliate in the New York-Penn League, and had just coached Craig’s first summer as a professional baseball player.

Back then, Craig was a skinny shortstop who had just graduated from the University of California. He was an eighth-round pick who, at 6-foot-2 and still growing, Luhnow said would need to rely on his bat and versatility in the field to make the big leagues.

In the top 10 rounds of the amateur draft, Luhnow said, teams are looking for players who will impact the major league team. But by the eighth round that probability is slim.

Coming off an impressive senior season at Cal, Craig’s first summer in the pros was expectedly unspectacular. He hit .257 for the Spikes with four home runs in 48 games. But DeJohn saw something special in him that at the time took Luhnow by surprise.

“He came into our system without a lot of fanfare as a senior out of college,” Luhnow said. “€œI remember Mark DeJohn said, ‘This guy is a prospect.’ I said, ‘What makes you think that? He hit [four] home runs.’ He said, ‘This is a hard league and he was tired after a long college season. But this guy is a prospect. Wait until you see what he looks like in the spring.’ ”€

Luhnow had first noticed Craig his junior year at Cal, and had him put on the Cardinals’ draft board after scouting him his senior year. But, as DeJohn predicted, he saw the real Craig take form in spring 2007.

Luhnow saw a player who could hit both the inside fastball and outside breaking pitch, and was a nightmare for pitchers with runners in scoring position.

At the same time, Craig was muted and unassuming. “€œHe quietly went about his business and talked with his bat and his glove,” said Mark Budaska, hitting coach of the Memphis Redbirds, the Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate.

Craig was never labeled a potential superstar by scouts. He never provoked excitement amongst fans. But his superb focus and work ethic carried him to success at a stunning pace.

“He made it a lot faster and made a bigger impact than any of us in St. Louis anticipated,”€ Luhnow said.

Craig breezed through the minor leagues. By the end of 2013, he was a World Series champion, an All-Star and a regular .300 hitter in three-plus seasons with the Cardinals.

For seemingly unknown reasons, 2014 has been different for Craig. Now with the Red Sox, he is in the midst of his worst major league season, sporting career lows in average (.231) and power numbers (eight home runs, 19 doubles). With such underwhelming numbers as well as injury concerns, questions have been raised about whether or not the Red Sox have received damaged goods.

However, it’s not the first time the 30-year-old has been underestimated, and certainly not the first time he’s been asked to shatter expectations.

* * *

Craig has his back toward his locker in the Red Sox clubhouse. He’s stiff, as if he’s been approached by the middle school bully.

He’s visibly uncomfortable talking about himself. But when asked to reflect on his baseball beginnings, he can’t help but crack a shy smile.

Craig_Allen-Red Sox home red hitting 8-1-14

Craig returned to action a week ago after suffering an ankle injury in his first game with the Red Sox on Aug. 1. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

His father, Ron Craig, began tossing baseballs to Allen when he was about 3 or 4 years old in their Southern California neighborhood. And once he was old enough to swing a bat, Craig immediately was signed up for tee-ball.

His passion for the game was instant. There was nothing he enjoyed more than hitting.

“€œI loved it. I always loved playing the game and hitting, especially, and just wanted to get better at that part of the game,” he said. “It was a fun thing growing up just to play Little League with my friends, playing travel ball and just the whole deal.”

Craig always was appreciative of the opportunities baseball afforded him, even when he was young. At about 14, he went to Venezuela with his father to represent the United States in the Pan American Games. He played against some of the best young talent in the world in front of large crowds.

Little did he know then that such events were only the beginning of a baseball career loaded with full stadiums and monumental pressure.

“Looking back, experiences like that helped prepare me for where I am today,” Craig said. “It’s funny because you don’t think about it at the time. But looking back it’s pretty cool.”

It was in high school that Craig built his reputation as not just a hard worker, but perhaps the most driven player David Barret, his coach at Chaparral High School in Temecula, California, had ever seen.

Barret would drive by the field late on a given weekend night, and almost every time he’d spot Craig fielding ground balls from his father and taking batting practice.

If Craig felt as if he practiced poorly or wasn’t prepared for the next day’s game, Barret said, he’d stay on the field until he believed he was ready.

“€œHe knew at a young age what it took to be successful,” Barret said. “€œThat’s unusual for a kid to have a goal, have an expectation and a level of play that he’s used to, and knows what it takes to get himself ready for that next game to perform at the highest level possible consistently.”

Craig already was hitting the ball to both fields regularly while playing against what Barret called a “hotbed of baseball talent”€ in the Southwestern League, which was ranked by MaxPreps.com as the No. 1 high school baseball league in the country.

Barret said Craig reminded him of a right-handed version of Jason Giambi – a player Barret coached against when the former Yankees slugger was in high school –€“ for his smooth stroke and his ability to spread the ball all over the field.

But most importantly, Barret said both players were “€œtough as nails in the mental toughness category.”

That mental toughness was what made Craig Temecula’s Mr. Clutch.

It was rare for Barret to call up underclassmen to the varsity squad, but Craig made it in the middle of his freshman season and thrived.

Barret highlighted multiple clutch performances in postseason games, including a two-homer effort in the state quarterfinal Craig’s sophomore year and a three-run blast in the first inning of the state championship game his senior year, as well as multiple walkoff home runs. According to Barett, Craig always was Chaparral’s go-to player.

“What set him apart in all the years that I coached, that if it came down to the last inning with the game on the line, the person I would choose would be Allen Craig,” Barret said. “That coolness and calmness that he has at the plate that you hope all the players would have. But it’s really tough to teach, and Allen has that. That’s what I felt he had above everyone else.”

Craig hit .585 with eight home runs as a senior to earn Southwestern League MVP honors. Up next was a four-year stop in Berkeley.

But before he began his college career, Craig had an unforgettable summer ahead of him.

* * *

Looking at the numbers 12 years later, Edgar Soto still couldn’t believe it.

Now the athletic director at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona, Soto coached the United States 18U national team to a bronze medal in the IBAF World Junior Championship in Sherbrooke, Quebec, in the summer of 2002.

It was a U.S. team loaded with big personalities and standout talent. Seven of the 18 players on that team were future first-round draft picks, six of whom came right out of high school a year later.

There was Delmon Young, the boisterous outfielder who launched a tournament-record nine home runs that summer and led the team with a .513 average in eight games. There was Lastings Milledge, the speedster who could hit for power and also was a wizard with his glove. There was Chad Billingsley, the hard-throwing right-hander who went 3-0 with a 2.45 ERA in three appearances. There were other future major league cynosures such as Ian Stewart, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ian Kennedy as well.

Then there was Craig, the soft-spoken shortstop destined for college with likely another four years before he’d get his shot at the big leagues. He didn’t hit 400-foot home runs or frighten opponents on the basepaths with blazing speed, but he hit .485 –€“ good for second on the team –€“  and was third on the team with 10 RBIs.

His demeanor was so modest, his approach so workmanlike and his efforts so subtle that his consistently exceptional production sometimes could go unnoticed.

“You know what was funny was, with him, at the end of the day you’d say, ‘Hey look, Allen Craig had three hits today,’ or, ‘Allen Craig did this,’ ”€ Soto said. “The numbers were always there, and that’s how he made the team. You might’ve not seen him because it wasn’t a Delmon Young hit where he hit it to the moon or over a scoreboard, but he got his hits.

“€œYou couldn’t overlook him because when it comes down to it you’d get to his name and say, ‘You know what, that guy had a great game. He did this, he did that.’ You were able to see it. The ones that would stand out would be, ‘Hey, did you see Delmon Young‘s home run over the scoreboard?’ ”€

Added Soto: “He was kind of overshadowed by some of the teammates that he had, but man, he was solid, he was consistent.”

Soto said Craig reminded him of Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy, whom he coached in 2000, because both players “€œnever really brought too much attention to themselves. Just humble guys that played hard and that you felt like you can count on all the time.”

Craig, however, said he never felt overshadowed by his teammates. In fact, he called that summer one of his “€œgreatest baseball memories.” That experience taught him the blue-collar approach that he’s employed throughout most of his career.

“€œMy main goal was to focus on the level I was at,” he said. “€œNot getting too far ahead of myself, just trying to get good at high school baseball, get good in college and then when I got to the pros.”

Soto said he never doubted Craig’s potential. Ken Jacome, the pitching coach on that USA squad, called Craig a “no-brainer big leaguer.”

Both coaches admitted they couldn’t have predicted just how successful he would be. However, neither was surprised by how he got to that point.

“If you look back at that team, he wasn’t one of our high-profile guys,” said Jacome, who’s now an assistant coach at the University of New Mexico. “Allen was going to be a college guy. He was going to go to school, he was going to go play and get a degree and do all that stuff, so I think he was a little overlooked as far as just being that high-profile top prospect. He was that guy that was going to outwork everybody and put his time in in college.”

* * *

David Esquer prides himself in molding an unfinished product into a big league-caliber talent. The Cal coach searches for the hardest-working players, the ones most determined and most capable of seismic improvement.

Courtesy Michael Pimentel/GoldenBearSports.com

Craig stayed all four years at Cal in part to put himself in better position to succeed at the major league level. (Michael Pimentel/GoldenBearSports.com)

Craig perfectly fit that billing.

“€œI knew that he was a good player with the ability to get better,”€ Esquer said.

Craig’s first two seasons at Cal were unremarkable, but the progress was there. He hit .285 both his freshman and sophomore seasons, upping his power numbers with more at-bats as a second-year player.

The turning point for Craig came midway through his junior year. He hit .304 with 35 RBIs and 40 runs scored in 57 games as a middle-of-the-order-presence in a Pac-10 lineup.

At that point, Esquer said, Craig was talented enough to be drafted into the major leagues. However, neither he nor Craig felt it was smart to make that jump.

“I remember that what he was hearing from some clubs was not going to be good enough for him,”€ Esquer said. “€œHe made a very mature decision that it would be in his best interest to come back for his senior year.”

Said Craig: “I started off slow my junior year, finished off strong and really had a chance to get drafted, maybe not. But I knew that school was really important to me and it got me closer to graduating. My senior year was important and it just didn’t work out after my junior year. I knew I wanted to have an even better senior year.”

Craig did exactly what he set out to do. He led the team in batting average (.344), slugging percentage (.561), doubles (15) and home runs (11) — the kind of numbers that drew interest from scouts such as Luhnow and the Cardinals.

“€œYou can never underestimate the ability of driving in runs, and that’s what he can do,”€ Esquer said. “He could hit the breaking ball and he could use the whole field.”

* * *

Luhnow, then-general manager Walt Jocketty and the rest of the Cardinals front office staff had a select group of college seniors on their radar entering the 2006 draft. But those players weren’t the hot commodities. That was reserved for the high school phenoms.

However, drafting an 18-year-old with the expectation that he’ll be an impact big league player in three or four years is a gamble. In 2014, more teams are realizing the value of college players, Luhnow said, because “you let the schools do the weeding-out process on your behalf.” That, in turn, raises the likelihood the college player will succeed.

The Cardinals projected Craig as a fifth-round pick. Other clubs didn’t feel the same way, though, and St. Louis was able to wait until the eighth round to select him as the first college senior the team picked that year.

“€œBy the eighth round we had enough people saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to lose this guy if we don’t take him right now,’ ”€ Luhnow said. “We made the right decision.”

* * *

Craig was penciled in to return to Low-A ball in 2007 after a pedestrian showing at State College the previous summer.

But, as DeJohn had anticipated, Craig blew the Cardinals staff away with his bat that spring and wound up on the High-A Palm Beach Cardinals roster.

Playing in what Luhnow called a “very pitcher-friendly league” and ballpark, Craig hit .312 with 21 home runs and 77 RBIs. “He just started mashing,” Luhnow said. “We knew at that point we had something special.”

Craig had similar success the next year for the organization’s Double-A team in Springfield, Missouri, but he never drew the kind of excitement players like Colby Rasmus, Jon Jay or Shelby Miller did.

The players who had fans raving, Luhnow said, were the ones with exceptional scouting tools, the ones with speed, the ones who threw hard and the ones with hulking power.

“Those are the guys that get Baseball America excited,” Luhnow said. “I don’t think Craig was ever a top-100 prospect, yet his major league career is probably going to be better than 95 of those 100 guys on the list when he was not on it.

“It’s really an under-the-radar, just keeping performing and you’ll get the chance.”

The minor leagues weren’t as easy as Craig made them look, however. In fact, he said those years were the most mentally challenging of his baseball life.

Craig was producing at an incredible level. But the goal wasn’t to be a great minor league player. He wanted to excel in the big leagues, where he could travel on charter flights instead of buses and play in front of packed stadiums with passionate fans.

No matter how close Craig got to that goal, it never seemed close enough.

“€œSometimes things don’t happen in the timetable that you’d like them to,” he said. “For me it taught me a lesson to be patient and focus on what I’m doing, where I’m at and things will happen in time. But it was challenging. Getting through the minor leagues is tough.”

The most difficult part came in Craig’s first season at Triple-A Memphis in 2009. He hit .268 with eight home runs and 29 RBIs through the first three months of the season. He was abysmal in May, hitting .252/.293/.400 with 30 strikeouts.

The problem was the direction with Craig’s stride, Budaska said. He stepped across his body too much during his swing and had troubling handling inside pitches.

The two spent extra time working on his flaws. Budaska adjusted Craig’s approach and the results were evident. Craig clubbed 10 home runs with an .829 slugging percentage in July and hit .386 over the last 57 games of the season.

Craig credited Budaska for such a drastic turnaround. The teacher lauded his student’s own desire to make the extra effort.

“He was always open-minded and was a good listener,”€ Budaska said. “€œHe was intelligent enough — he’s a real intelligent player — to listen for information about individuals that had some experience in the game and took a piece of this and a piece of that and applied it and that worked out for him.

“€œEverything doesn’t work for everybody, so you have to be able to take in information, look at the adjustments, process it and try it to see if it’s going to be right for you and go from there. He was really good at that.”

In 2010, Craig had finally achieved his goal of making the big leagues. He spent much of the year bouncing between Memphis and St. Louis, giving Cardinals fans glimpses of what he could be.

Up to that point, Craig had been overshadowed by star talent on countless occasions.

After the magic he performed in the 2011 World Series, though, he wouldn’t be overlooked in St. Louis again.

* * *

Barret deemed Craig clutch in high school. Soto praised his blue-collar attitude with Team USA. Esquer referred to him as deadly with runners in scoring position.

Craig came up with multiple clutch hits in the 2011 World Series, including this game-winning pinch-hit single in Game 2. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

Craig came up with multiple clutch hits in the 2011 World Series, including this go-ahead pinch-hit single in Game 2. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

Cardinals fans got to see those attributes come together over the next three seasons. The world got its first look at it in the 2011 postseason.

At 27 years old, Craig was playing in his first World Series. He didn’t start either of the first two games against Texas, but he capitalized in the way he does best. Just days after ripping a two-run pinch-hit single in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series against Milwaukee, Craig did his best Kirk Gibson impression by turning on a 98 mph Alexi Ogando fastball for the go-ahead pinch-hit single in the sixth inning of Game 1 of the Fall Classic.

Craig did it again in another pinch-hit situation in Game 2, driving a 96 mph heater from Ogando to right field to break a scoreless tie.

Craig joined Amos Otis and Duke Snider — whose grandson, Brandon Snider, played with Craig at Chaparral — as the only players to drive in go-ahead runs in the sixth inning or later in consecutive World Series games.

“€œI met him a couple of times,”€ Craig said of the elder Snider at the time. ‘€”To read that was special to me. I know it’€™s not the all-time home run record or anything like that, but it’€™s special to me to be in the same sentence as Duke. That was pretty cool.”€

Craig then hit home runs in Games 3, 6 and the decisive Game 7 to help the Cardinals win the World Series. He didn’t just energize all of St. Louis, he was a hero back home, too, where Chaparral would retire his high school jersey number months later.

“€œAll of Temecula and Chaparral was thrilled to see him get those pinch hits in the World Series,”€ Barret said.

It was the type of performance that made those who first saw his big league potential proud as well.

“When you get a guy that can help you win a World Series like he did in 2011, that’s all the return you ever want,”€ Luhnow said. “To think that I played a part in selecting him and he played a part in delivering that championship in St. Louis, that’s all the return I ever needed.”

Craig continued that kind of production over the next two seasons. Just as in 2011, he was at his best in the most important moments. He hit .407 with runners in scoring position and .483 with the bases loaded from 2011-13. He was an All-Star selection in 2013.

After missing most of September and October last season with a Lisfranc injury, Craig was back in time for the World Series against the Red Sox. Although he is most remembered in Boston for his role as the baserunner in the obstruction call that ended Game 3 at Busch Stadium, he posted a team-high .375 batting average over the course of the series with an .849 OPS.

Craig finally appeared to be nearing his peak.

* * *

It’s Aug. 21 and Craig’s name appears on the lineup sheet to the right of the entrance to the Red Sox clubhouse for the first time since his debut. Once the media is allowed in, Craig is approached one by one by reporters seeking comment on his health and his return to the lineup.

On this day, he won’t be ignored.

For all the glory that came with Craig’s last three seasons, 2014 has bordered on disastrous. Poor numbers, falling victim to the trade deadline, health concerns and a logjam in the Red Sox outfield has left Craig with plenty of uncertainty going forward.

However, Craig said he doesn’t concern himself with the future. Whether it’s learning new positions after college — he’s primarily a right fielder for the Red Sox — or revamping his swing, Craig has had a knack for making the right adjustments and thriving.

His baseball journey has been unconventional, and frankly a little hectic. But in that time he’s adopted the kind of values — such as his work ethic, patience and quiet confidence — that make a great athlete.

It’s enough where he believes he can once again catch people by surprise.

“I guess you could say that I was a little bit of an underdog, but I’ve always been confident in my abilities and that’s not something that’s ever left me,” he said. “€œI never looked at things like that, like I was an underdog. I just tried to focus on what I needed to do, play the game and get better, and that’s that.

“This year has been a little bit difficult, but I understand baseball is a tough game and things don’t always go the way you want them to and sometimes you need to learn from experiences, and the first half of this year was definitely a learning experience. I feel like I’m better for it. I’ve been going through a little bit of a struggle, but I feel good now.”

Whether his own confidence is convincing or not, he undoubtedly has the backing of those who helped shape him as a player.

“€œThe game of baseball is hard and you’re always constantly making adjustments, and he made those adjustments while he was here. It’s just the nature of the game of baseball,”€ Esquer said. “€œSeeing how he started and went through his career here and ended up with his best season, he was able to make those adjustments. So I have no doubt he can make those adjustments.”

Said Soto: “€œWhether good or bad, he always seemed to have short-term memory. He was always on to the next at-bat, the next play, so I think that’s helped him along the way. I’ve never seen him overreact on anything. He was always kind of an even-keeled person.”

Added Budaska: “I think he’s going to continue to have a long and successful career, and this happens to be over in Boston now.”

Blog Author: 
Nick Canelas
Garin Cecchini

Garin Cecchini

A brief look at the action in the Red Sox farm system on Wednesday:

TRIPLE-A PAWTUCKET RED SOX: 5-1 LOSS AT LEHIGH VALLEY (PHILLIES)

(BOX)

– With a 2-for-3 night, Garin Cecchini has put togther multi-hit performances in three of his last four games. Cecchini had a couple of singles, a walk and drove in the PawSox’ only run on Wednesday night. He’s now 9-for-20 over a mini-five-game hit streak, and driven in five runs over his last four contests. The third baseman has been hot all month long after struggling at the plate for the better part of the season, hitting .341/.419/.537 in August with 10 doubles after collecting just 11 two-baggers in the previous four months combined.

Jackie Bradley Jr. followed up his three-hit showing on Tuesday with an 0-for-4 night. Since being demoted to Triple-A, the outfielder is hitting .204 with a .220 OBP and a couple of extra-base hits. He’s drawn just a single walk, but his strikeout problems followed him to Pawtucket, where he’s fanned in 12 of 50 at-bats.

Steven Wright was hit hard, lasting six innings but allowing five runs on 12 hits (which represents a season-high, and the first time he’s permitted double-digit hits in an outing) and two walks while fanning four. It’s the second outing in a row and third time in his last five starts in which Wright has allowed five earned runs. He owns a 5.56 ERA over his last five starts compared to a 2.37 mark through his first 10 outings of the season.

DOUBLE-A PORTLAND SEA DOGS: 5-2 LOSS VS. READING (PHILLIES)

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– After three impressive starts upon returning to the Sea Dogs from an injury that sidelined him briefly, Keith Couch wasn’t sharp on Wednesday, going 6 2/3 innings but permitting five runs on eight hits. However, Couch didn’t walk a single batter on the evening after issuing seven free passes over his last 19 2/3 innings of work. The righty gave up a pair of home runs, which is unusual; he’d allowed just one through his previous 16 starts this season.

– On what was a rough night offensively for the Sea Dogs, Jonathan Roof managed to reach base three times, going 1-for-2 with a pair of walks. It was the first time the outfielder had drawn a walk since August 12. The 25-year-old has scuffled at the plate as of late, hitting just .162/.244/.189 over his last 12 games.

Sean Coyle‘s slump continued with a hitless evening on Wednesday, though he did manage to work a walk. He’s hit just .180/.286/.344 over his last 17 games, and is .averaging over a strikeout per game over that span. The extra-base hits haven’t been coming as frequently either, with three home runs but just one double over that span. Even with the cold streak, however, Coyle’s line on the season stands at .296/.373/.508.

HIGH-A SALEM RED SOX: 3-1 LOSS, 5-4 WIN AT FREDERICK (ORIOLES)

(BOX GAME 1, BOX GAME 2)

Carlos Asuaje followed a 1-for-3 performance in the first game with a 4-for-4 contest that included three more doubles in the second contest. The four hits, three doubles and three extra-base hits all represented season highs in what had already been an extremely impressive first full pro season. The five-hit day improved the 22-year-old’s line to a .348 average with a .409 OBP and .563 slugging mark through 33 games, following 90 contests in Single-A Greenville in which the 2013 11th-rounder hit .305/.391/.542. He has 64 extra-base hits in 123 games.

Manuel Margot had a double to right in his only plate appearance of the first game, but was thrown out at third trying to stretch the hit into a triple and was removed from the game after the inning. He tweaked his ankle on the play and was removed for what was described as precautionary reasons. He’s hitting .333/.370/.548 with five extra-base hits in 12 games.

– After going 0-for-2 in the first game, shortstop Jose Vinicio went 2-for-2 in the second game, his fifth multi-hit game in six contests and his seventh in nine games. In the process, the 21-year-old has improved from .151/.192/.164 on the year to .240/.270/.288.

SINGLE-A GREENVILLE DRIVE: 8-0 LOSS AT CHARLESTON (YANKEES)

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– First baseman Sam Travis celebrated his 21st birthday by going 2-for-4 with a double, delivering the only multi-hit game of the night for Greenville. The second-round pick has 13 extra-base hits (10 doubles, three homers) in 22 games with the Drive after collecting 10 extra-base hits (five doubles, a triple and four homers) in 40 games with Lowell prior to his promotion. Overall, Travis is hitting .317/.352/.468 in his pro debut.

– Though right-hander Ty Buttrey struck out a career-high eight and walked none, he also permitted nine hits (six for extra-bases) in five innings. The 21-year-old, a 2012 fourth-rounder who received a bonus in line with a first-rounder ($1.3 million), is 0-5 with a 7.43 ERA, with opponents hitting .306 against him in Greenville.

SHORT-SEASON SINGLE-A LOWELL SPINNERS: 5-4 LOSS AT CONNECTICUT (TIGERS)

(BOX)

Raymel Flores went 3-for-5 on the night, his third three-hit performance of the season, driving in a pair of runs. The 19-year-old has looked solid at the plate as of late, batting .319 over his last 13 contests. The problem is that it’s been over 64 plate appearances since Flores’ last walk, while he’s struck out 17 times since that last free pass. The infielder has shown the ability to hit for average this season (a .271 mark through 56 games) but has shown little power, slugging .340 (six doubles, two triples and a home run).

– Starter Kevin McAvoy has not allowed a run over his last five starts, permitting just eight hits and three walks over his last 15 innings of work. The 20-year-old fourth-round draft pick has shown excellent command all season long; he hasn’t walked a batter in his last two starts, has yet to walk multiple batters in an outing, and has issued a total of just three walks in his 25 1/3 innings, or an average of just over one walk per nine frames. The Bryant College product owns a 2.13 ERA through his first 10 professional outings.

Karsten Whitson made his first appearance in almost a month, tossing a scoreless fourth inning, allowing a hit and striking out two. Whitson struggled in his first two outings with the Spinners, giving up four runs on five hits and four walks while managing just one strikeout through his first 4 1/3 innings.

– Reliever Carlos Pinales endured a disastrous ninth inning, blowing a 4-1 lead and giving up four runs on three hits and a walk without recording an out. The 22-year-old has posted an ugly 7.45 ERA over his last nine games, with the opposition hitting .364 against him.

ROOKIE LEVEL GULF COAST LEAGUE RED SOX: 14-8 WIN AT GCL ORIOLES

(BOX)

– Shortstop Javier Guerra matched a season-high with three hits, going 3-for-6 with a homer while driving in a career-high five runs. The 18-year-old from Panama gets raves from evaluators thanks to the ease and fluidity that he demonstrates both at shortstop — where his range and arm suggest the tools to be an everyday big leaguer at his current position — and at the plate, where the sweet-swinging left-hander has shown an ability to drive the ball from gap-to-gap with the potential to grow into power as he fills out. He has a surprisingly low OBP (.286 with just five walks in over 200 plate appearances) given his calm demeanor at the plate; the team expects that he will develop patience, and the early signs of extra-base pop (20 extra-base hits in 51 games), a good swing and excellent defense all point to a player who in future years has a chance to develop into one of the Sox’ top prospects.

– Center fielder Trenton Kemp went 2-for-4 with a double, continuing a pro debut in which the 18-year-old 15th rounder has shown an intriguing if raw mix of power and speed. In 37 games, he’s hitting .224/.313/.345 with 10 extra-base hits, including a .250/.354/.411 line in August.

Blog Author: 
Alex Speier and Katie Morrison

Juan Perez, the president and CEO of Roc Nation Sports, told ESPNBoston.com  Wednesday that Rusney Castillo has secured a work visa from the United States government and is immediately eligible to start playing in games.

Juan Perez, the president and CEO of Roc Nation Sports, told ESPNBoston.com  Wednesday that Rusney Castillo has secured a work visa from the United States government and is immediately eligible to start playing in games. Perez’s agency represents Castillo, who signed a seven-year, $72 million deal with the Red Sox last week.

Castillo began working out in Fort Myers, Fla. Wednesday, and was scheduled to continue is workouts at JetBlue Park Thursday. There would be an opportunity for the outfielder to see game action with the Red SoxGulf Coast League team, which is scheduled to participate in a one-game playoff Friday with the chance to move on to a best-of-three final round with a win.

The P-1A visa extends for five years, with the opportunity to extend another five years. Castillo will be eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship while holding the visa.

Prior to Wednesday, Castillo’s only other visit to the Red Sox’ minor league facility came Aug. 1 when the team put the 27-year-old through a private workout.

Blog Author: 
WEEI