Postseason star Verdugo: 'I live for this'

October 10th, 2021

BOSTON -- already had two run-scoring hits, including a homer, as he raced toward the visiting bullpen at Tropicana Field in the sixth inning of Friday's Game 2 of the American League Division Series. He was in hot pursuit of a towering Nelson Cruz foul, nearly tumbling over a short wall as he secured the ball.

The brighter spotlight of October baseball doesn't agree with everyone, but thus far, Verdugo seems built for it. The 25-year-old has been a Red Sox difference-maker with his bat and glove, stroking six hits through 13 playoff at-bats (.462) and driving in five runs, including Tuesday's third-inning homer off the Rays' Collin McHugh.

"I’m not nervous at all. I live for this,” Verdugo said. “It’s still baseball, you know what I mean? The surroundings and fans and the noise outside of it are a lot different, with how much media is on the field before the games and all that, but for me -- I just play my game. Baseball is baseball, and let's not make it more complicated than that.”

It’s an approach that has always worked for Verdugo, and that wide-eyed enthusiasm has endeared him to his new manager, teammates and fan base.

Acquired from the Dodgers in a blockbuster February 2020 trade that sent superstar outfielder Mookie Betts to Southern California, Verdugo brims with a confidence that gives the Red Sox a reason to feel similarly about their future. This year, Verdugo slashed .289/.351/.426 (106 OPS+) with 32 doubles, 13 homers and 63 RBIs in 146 regular-season games.

“I think Alex learned a lot this season,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “He did an amazing job, especially late in the season. … He will hit for power with time. I think those doubles are going to turn into home runs, as long as he doesn't try. We like the fact that he can hit doubles; he can hit for average. We can hit him anywhere in the lineup.

“He has been able to control the at-bats, and he has been a joy to watch. I think physically he is going to get better. He is going to get stronger.”

Verdugo also stroked two hits with three RBIs in Tuesday's AL Wild Card Game against the Yankees, suggesting he might have the “it” factor that autumn play demands.

Watch Verdugo around the batting cage or in pregame drills, and he’s hardly champing at his cuticles. Verdugo even spent a few minutes before Friday's game bantering about a potential future on the mound, hoping to follow Shohei Ohtani’s lead as a two-way player.

“He might throw a bullpen [session] tomorrow,” Cora quipped.

To secure the Cruz foul, Verdugo had to cover 96 feet in 5.7 seconds, according to Statcast -- his spikes digging hard into The Trop’s artificial surface.

“I felt like I had a good jump,” Verdugo said. “You mainly try to beat it to the spot, so you try to run as hard as you can to the wall and just kind of get there and give [yourself] some time. I knew it was a low wall, so I knew I would be able to reach over and have a little extra reach to it. I wasn't sure if I was going to hit a fan, but it just happened to be perfect.”

Verdugo later added his third hit in the contest, and a postgame journey to The Trop’s interview room provided an opportunity to show off again.

Dangling from the outfielder’s neck was a weighty square necklace that appeared to feature a bed of diamonds, glittering in the television lamps. It included the words “Bendición” (Spanish for blessing), “Verdugo” and a hidden image of SpongeBob Squarepants on the back.

“Just my little tribute to Boston,” Verdugo said. “I love this team; I love this city. It feels like since I got traded here, it’s just kind of taken me in. I love the way the fans are. It can get tough -- you don’t perform, they get on you, but I love that. I love that fight, man.”

As the baseball world learned with Larry Walker’s induction to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, no one who rocks SpongeBob can take himself too seriously. That light-hearted lift might be just what the Red Sox need.

“It tells me to cheer up, to keep going,” Verdugo said. “I like jewelry. And I love Boston.”