John Tomase

Time has come for Rafael Devers to be a force for resurgent Red Sox

There's no more hiding in the shadows for the star Red Sox slugger.

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Sometimes the ball flies off the bat of Rafael Devers like he's swinging a cinder block and everyone else a matchstick.

That was certainly the case against the Angels on Sunday, when Devers clubbed a hanging splitter nearly 450 feet to dead center, leaving future Hall of Famer Mike Trout no choice but to admire the majesty of the blast in Boston's 12-2 victory.

There is no one else on the Red Sox capable of hitting a ball quite like that, including massive first baseman Triston Casas. That singular ability separates Devers from all but a handful of sluggers, and with the Red Sox off to a simultaneously encouraging and challenging start, the time has come for Devers to put his stamp not just on the offense, but the organization.

We clearly underestimated this team, which opens at home on Tuesday vs. the Orioles. The Red Sox return from the West Coast with a 7-3 record and the best pitching staff, statistically, in baseball. But trouble looms.

Shortstop Trevor Story awaits what will almost certainly be bad news on his dislocated left shoulder, creating massive offensive, defensive, and leadership voids. Story embraced the responsibility of filling all three roles, and now his season might be over.

That means it's time for Devers to get uncomfortable.

The cheerful slugger has already feinted at a more vocal role, particularly when he blasted ownership for failing to invest in the rotation during spring training. He's entering the first year not only of his $313.5 million extension, but also his prime. The 27-year-old is the one true superstar on the roster, with the potential to post Adrian Beltre numbers from the left side of the plate.

The only problem is, Devers has always preferred to work in the shadow of others. He debuted in 2017 on a roster that included Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, he won a World Series a year later batting behind All-Star J.D. Martinez, and he set a career-high in homers and RBIs in 2021 while yielding leadership responsibilities to strong-willed veterans like Kiké Hernández and even late arrival Kyle Schwarber.

The Red Sox have systematically dismantled the roster since, with all of the aforementioned players gone and Devers the last link to the 2018 champs. The Red Sox paid him not only to keep putting up 30-100 seasons, but to keep the team watchable and competitive until the next generation of youngsters like Marcelo Mayer and Roman Anthony arrives.

If Devers had hoped to continue blending into the background, those wishes were dashed Friday night the moment Story hit the ground and writhed in pain.

Devers was the first player on the scene, and his reaction told the story. He immediately raised his glove over his head in despair. He knew what Story meant to the team, he sensed the severity of what he had just witnessed, and on some level, he probably recognized what it meant for him, too.

There is nowhere to hide. On Saturday, in the club's first game without its Gold Glove-caliber shortstop, Devers committed the two-run error that turned a 1-0 win into a 2-1 loss. Devers has battled frequent defensive slumps throughout his career, and watching him treat Anthony Rendon's chopper indecisively – one step in and then one step back as it ate him up – conjured unpleasant memories.

The Red Sox can ill-afford one of his lapses in confidence, especially now that Story's not there to cover with tremendous range in the hole. The defensive dominos eventually could pull the electric Ceddanne Rafaela out of center field and put him at short, with Jarren Duran sliding over from left, and Wilyer Abreu joining the everyday lineup in right.

Story's absence therefore has the potential to weaken the Red Sox defensively at three positions, which increases pressure on the offense and pitching staff to compensate.

The starters have delivered under new pitching coach Andrew Bailey, and the sluggers emerged in California, with nine homers since Saturday. At some point, however, right fielder Tyler O'Neill and catcher Reese McGuire will likely cool, and it will be incumbent on Devers to provide the kind of presence that Martinez, David Ortiz, and Manny Ramirez delivered before him.

Were the Red Sox terrible and clearly destined for last place, it wouldn't be such a pressing issue. But 10 surprisingly solid games into the season, they're going to need almost everything to go right to remain in contention.

Now would be the perfect time for Devers to put the team on his back.

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