BALTIMORE — When the Boston Red Sox left Oriole Park at Camden Yards this week, the political world was focused on their destination: One group of players and staff headed to the White House to celebrate the team’s 2018 World Series title, while another opted out and headed back to Boston.
But this is baseball season, after all — which Red Sox ace David Price reminded us when explaining his reasoning for skipping the White House visit — and from a purely baseball sense, what mattered as the Red Sox departed Baltimore was not their destination, but the ground they already occupied.
A series win against the lowly Orioles pushed the Red Sox back to the .500 mark, at 19-19, as they opened an eight-game homestand Friday — completing a grueling recovery from a low-water mark of seven games under .500 on April 17 and giving hope to other struggling, would-be contenders (we’re looking at you, Washington Nationals) that there is, in fact, a way out of the mire.
All it takes is a return to form by some players, a return to health by others and maybe a Michael Chavis.
The Red Sox were 6-13 when they summoned Chavis, a 23-year-old rookie infielder, from Class AAA on April 19 to fill a hole at second base. A solid prospect who cracked some top-100 lists this winter — entering his sixth season in pro ball — Chavis wasn’t being asked to rescue a Red Sox lineup that was hitting a collective .229 with a .675 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
But that is essentially what he did. Chavis doubled off Tampa Bay Rays flamethrower Jose Alvarado in his debut (to set up the go-ahead run), homered six times in his first 13 starts and (despite going 0-for-10 in his past three games) carried a .293/.423/.638 slash line into the weekend. More importantly, the Red Sox are 13-6 since he showed up, and the offense has hit .262 with a .798 OPS in that span.
No, Chavis hasn’t done it single-handedly, but it is impossible to ignore the boost he gave the team when it needed it most.
“We’ve found our stride offensively,” Manager Alex Cora said. “My biggest concern early in the season wasn’t pitching. It was offense. Now we’re top-five in a lot of categories. We’re hitting with two strikes. We’re hitting with two outs. The line is moving. That feels good. We feel like we can come back in games. Early in the season, it didn’t feel that way. The offense was stuck.”
Five years after the Red Sox picked him in the first round (26th overall) of the 2014 draft, Chavis may be finally fulfilling his pedigree and promise. But it was a long and winding path to here, one that included a couple of disappointing seasons at low Class A in 2015 and 2016 and an 80-game suspension in 2018 for a positive test for a performance-enhancing drug. (Chavis has said he doesn’t know how the substance, Dehydrochlormethyltestosterone, entered his system.)
“We’ve always thought very highly of him,” Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said. “He struggled a little bit early on [in the minors]. In 2017, he had a big year; that’s when we first started to see something. Then, in 2018, he had that unfortunate situation, but he came back and did well. We’re in a spot with our club, with all our veterans, where he doesn’t have to be the center of attention, more so than if we were a young club and he was the focus.”
It has only been about three weeks, and history says Chavis is unlikely to maintain his current level of production, but both he and the Red Sox believe there is a chance, because of the culture of collaboration built around veteran hitters such as J.D. Martinez — whom Chavis called “one of the most knowledgeable hitters I’ve ever met” — he could outperform his minor league numbers as a big leaguer.
“I’ve learned more these past few weeks than I did all last year,” Chavis said. “I learned a lot in spring training, but mostly it was from watching and listening. But now, I’m still watching and listening and learning, but they’re also talking to me more and helping me specifically, because I’m part of the team. It’s different.”
As the Red Sox start to get healthy again, it will become more difficult to carve out a spot for Chavis in their lineup. Thirteen of his 16 starts entering Friday had come at second base (with two starts at first base, and one at third), but with Dustin Pedroia and Brock Holt both on their way back soon, Chavis almost certainly will move around more.
To that end, the Red Sox recently ordered Chavis to start spending time in the outfield during batting practice, tracking balls and getting himself familiar with trajectories and angles — though one shudders at the thought of a novice outfielder learning that trade at Fenway Park, with its quirky walls and dimensions.
“He’s been swinging the bat well,” Cora said. “That’s something we can’t ignore. The more options, the better.”
Whether Chavis keeps hitting at his current clip or fades out and winds up back in the minors, this much is true: Great teams, whether by design or through sheer luck, often stumble upon a Michael Chavis on their way to becoming great — an unknown or largely overlooked prospect/fringe big leaguer who suddenly thrives and lifts the entire team for weeks or months at a time. Think Chris Taylor with the 2017 Los Angeles Dodgers, or Max Muncy with the same team a year later, or Derek Fisher with the 2017 Houston Astros or Luke Voit on the 2018 New York Yankees.
It’s too early to say whether Chavis can be that player — or for that matter, whether the third-place Red Sox can be that team — but he has already made an impact on the 2019 season in Boston, and because of that, they both have a fighting chance.
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