Two moments in the 1,000th game of Xander Bogaerts’s career illuminated the shortstop’s enormous significance to the Red Sox.
In the bottom of the fourth inning of a 12-9 win over the Tigers on Thursday, Bogaerts fell behind in the count, 0 and 2, against lefthanded reliever Tyler Alexander. Alexander opted for a cutter, which Bogaerts crushed off his left shin, crumpling to the ground.
“I hit it square on the barrel,” said Bogaerts. “[But] I knew I wasn’t going to come out.”
He never does. Bogaerts, after all, played 148 games in 2017 despite the fact that he couldn’t hold the bat with two hands for roughly five out of six months that season.
“He doesn’t take days off,” said Christian Vázquez.
Bogaerts plays every day and he plays hurt. He ranks 11th in the majors in games since his big league debut, and most of the players ahead of him are first basemen. Only one other player (Brandon Crawford) has been as durable as Bogaerts in the middle infield.
Bogaerts is driven to play hurt because he believes he can contribute. Such was the case on Alexander’s next pitch, when Bogaerts showcased another of his distinguishing abilities, staying on a changeup just off the ground and flicking a run-scoring single to shallow center.
Those incredible hands offered Bogaerts a chance of survival at the start of his career, when he was overmatched by big league pitchers and uncertain of his future. He spent half of the 2014 season overwhelmed, hitting .143 with a .395 OPS in a 60-game stretch while hearing mounting calls for his demotion.
“I definitely had a bumpy road,” he recalled. “I remember getting booed in 2014 and I was so young. I was like, ‘What the hell are these people booing me for? I’m just 21.’ ”
Bogaerts silenced the boos by adapting, learning to use elite hand-eye coordination to throw the bat on the ball and use the entire field. In 2015, those skills translated to a .320 average and his first Silver Slugger Award.
Yet while he hit for average from 2015-17, Bogaerts was largely overshadowed — whether by peers at shortstop (Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor) or more prominent teammates (Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, and Chris Sale, among others). Yet he had not plateaued.
Bogaerts, with encouragement from new manager Alex Cora, emerged as a power-hitting force in 2018, a middle-of-the-order presence whose .539 slugging percentage ranks second among shortstops over the last four years. He has steadily ranked among the most valuable players in the game, including a 2021 campaign in which he’s hitting .356/.402/.593.
Baseball insiders understand his value. Yet his national reputation has not equaled his production.
“He’s just a steady force,” said Tigers manager A.J. Hinch. “He’s grown to be one of the more underappreciated shortstops certainly in the American League … Maybe it’s because he’s hitting behind a J.D. Martinez type. He’s just kind of in the shadows. He can sneak up on you as a very, very good player in the league.
“It’s substance over style … He’s just very comfortable with who he is. He doesn’t try to really do too much, doesn’t try to sit in the spotlight. He just shows up and does his job, gets a couple hits, makes all the plays, does it with a smile on his face. He’s a really remarkable player.”
Within the Red Sox, there is no question about Bogaerts’s stature. He is beloved, and the respect he’s earned has cultivated a commanding presence that was also on display on Thursday.
In the sixth inning, with the Red Sox trailing, 7-6, Bogaerts coaxed a walk to load the bases. As Bogaerts headed to first, he turned to on-deck hitter Rafael Devers.
“Come on!” Bogaerts appeared to shout, exhorting his teammate. Devers hit a first-pitch, two-run single to put the Red Sox back on top.
That moment, too, spoke to his evolution. When Bogaerts arrived in the big leagues as a 20-year-old in 2013, four years after signing with the team out of Aruba, he was cautious and quiet on a veteran-laden team that won the World Series. Now, he is the veteran possessor of two rings, and the message delivered to Devers offered a small window into the leadership role Bogaerts has assumed at age 28.
“He learned right away what it’s all about to play in this market, this city, this stadium, for this franchise. He doesn’t take a day for granted,” said Cora. “He’s not as vocal or loud as Dustin [Pedroia] … but he’s always ready. He’s always prepared. He has helped me also off the field.”
To illustrate, Cora jokingly cited an example from Wednesday, when his 3-year-old twin sons — Xander and Isander — refused to eat breakfast.
“They love Xander Bogaerts,” said Cora. “So I called Xander and said, ‘Tell them what they have to do.’ He said, ‘Hey, you guys have to eat.’ They crushed breakfast. It was amazing.”
Yet the joke was meant to reinforce the broader point: Bogaerts has been a franchise cornerstone for 1,000 games across nine seasons. He’s in a select club — one of 30 Red Sox to play 1,000 games with the franchise, and one of nine to do so before turning 29 — whose exclusivity signals the shortstop’s importance.
“I’ve really learned to appreciate him,” said Cora. “We’ve got a lot of kids out there that we love — Carlos and Francisco, Javy [Báez]. But I’m happy that my shortstop is Xander Bogaerts. Hopefully he can play here for a long, long time.”
He already has played in Boston for a long, long time — with Thursday’s milestone allowing Bogaerts a chance to step back and appreciate all that has happened and all that he has become within the only organization he’s ever known.
“To play 1,000 games in an organization you have to be productive and be a guy that pretty much they can rely on,” said Bogaerts. “I’m happy to be the player that I’ve become.”