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J.D. and Benintendi find their offense vs. Rays

@IanMBrowne
July 23, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG -- As a team, the Red Sox have been an offensive force in July. But J.D. Martinez and Andrew Benintendi? Not so much. That is what made Monday’s 9-4 victory over the Rays at Tropicana Field so significant. • Box score Martinez mauled a three-run homer as part

ST. PETERSBURG -- As a team, the Red Sox have been an offensive force in July. But J.D. Martinez and Andrew Benintendi? Not so much.

That is what made Monday’s 9-4 victory over the Rays at Tropicana Field so significant.

Box score

Martinez mauled a three-run homer as part of a seven-run third inning. It was one of four hard-hit batted balls (exit velocity of 95 mph or higher) the slugger had on the night.

Two batters after Martinez’s missile, Benintendi smashed a 3-1 curveball -- the third thrown by Rays lefty Jalen Beeks in the at-bat -- over the wall in right for a solo shot. Benintendi also had a double and a single as part of a 3-for-5 performance.

“Some guys who have been searching for their swings had good nights,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “Good at-bats, too.”

With an early burst of offense at his back, Eduardo Rodriguez picked apart the Rays, limiting them to two hits -- neither of which left the infield -- over seven innings. For Rodriguez (12-4, 4.10 ERA), the performance was another in a recent string of successful outings.

Martinez and Benintendi, on the other hand, represented a possible rejuvenation. If they can start producing again in the middle of the order, Boston’s already-dangerous offense could become all but unstoppable. As it is, Mookie Betts has recaptured his groove while Rafael Devers -- whose two-run double opened the scoring in the third inning -- and Xander Bogaerts have been tremendous all season.

Cora had been saying for several days that Martinez had been chasing far too many pitches.

He showed a notably disciplined approach in that third inning, looking at the first five pitches of the at-bat as the count became full. Martinez got a good pitch to hit on the first 3-2 offering but fouled it straight back. But he didn’t miss the next one, scorching it at an exit velocity of 103.5 mph and a projected distance of 415 feet, according to Statcast.

“He got into the AB. That’s when you can develop your timing. You see the different speeds,” said Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers. “I think what it boils down to is you’ve got to swing at strikes. Get the ball back in the strike zone. Minimize the swings off the plate. I think that is first and foremost for him. He loves to hit. He loves to be aggressive, which we love, but also selectively aggressive. I think that’s where it starts.”

In 90 games this season, Martinez has a line of .287/.360/.515 with 20 homers and 55 RBIs. A lot of players would love to have those stats, but they don’t measure up to the standards Martinez set for himself the last two seasons.

“I know he’s been working on a few things trying to stay on the ball. His hands have been really important for him, kind of working on the path,” said Hyers. “I think we know J.D. When he gets confident, he gets on a roll. He’s been there, he’s done it, and it’s going to be fun to watch.”

Martinez was just pleased to have something to show for all the work he’s been doing behind the scenes.

“I feel like I’ve just trying to get my swing to where it needs to be, really,” Martinez said. “I feel like I’ve been fighting it all year and, little by little, just kind of chipping away at it.”

The root of Benintendi’s struggles have been harder to identify. His swing is a naturally fluid one, leaving Benintendi and the Red Sox flummoxed as to why he has been swinging and missing so often of late. Cora said prior to the game the club and Benintendi had found “a few things swing-wise that we’re making adjustments with.” Without question, his bat met the baseball with regularity on Monday and it was a sight to savor for Boston.

“He’s working and he felt comfortable going into the game today,” Cora said. “He talked about an adjustment in the way he was striding today in BP. It seems like his swing was back. He felt good about it. [Bench coach] Ron [Roenicke] threw to him. He saw a difference. He took it to the game, put three good swings on it, and hopefully it’s the beginning of something great for him.”

Much like Martinez, Benintendi has been fighting so hard to find his swing that he wasn’t about to make too much out of one big game.

“What do we have, like 60-something games left? A lot can happen in that time,” said Benintendi. “Mentally, you have to stay the same the whole time and I feel like I have. I know what I can do. I just haven’t really done it at all this year so hopefully tonight can kind of kick-start things.”

Martinez entered the night with one homer, four RBIs and a .591 OPS in his first 69 plate appearances in July. Benintendi hadn’t been any better, hitting .189 with no homers, six RBIs and a .585 OPS.

Both players were cornerstones in helping the Red Sox win the World Series last season. If this is the start of a rebound for their bats, they could be a big reason the Red Sox snap their inconsistency and make it back to the playoffs this year.

With the win, the Red Sox are now a game behind the Rays for second place in the American League East. More importantly, they moved to two games behind the Athletics for the second Wild Card spot.

“Big win,” Martinez said. “Obviously every one of them are big right now. To come out right away and get it going in the third inning was huge for us.”

Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.