BOSTON (CBS) – No matter what he does this week, this month and this season, Jackie Bradley Jr. never will be able to live up to the hype. Yet, despite the impossible expectations placed upon him, Bradley was able to accomplish one thing in his first few innings as a major leaguer.
He proved he can play.
Now, in a sport like baseball, where even Hall of Famers can look terrible for weeks at a time, it’s hard to prove anything in one single game. But it would’ve been difficult to watch Bradley’s major league debut on Monday afternoon at Yankee Stadium and say with a straight face that the kid was in over his head.
Bradley started Monday’s game in left field, the first Red Sox to start a season in the majors without any Triple-A experience since Shea Hillenbrand in 2001. He stepped to the plate in the top of the second inning with two on and one out, facing CC Sabathia, still one of the game’s best left-handed pitchers even if he’s not the Cy Young candidate he used to be as recently as two years ago.
It wasn’t surprising to see the rookie quickly fall behind 0-2, and nobody would have blamed him if he struck out. Instead, he patiently took two pitches outside the zone, fouled off another, and then took another two pitches to earn a walk.
It was at that point that Bradley put on display the difference between a disenchanted veteran and an inspired rookie, as he turned on the jets to reach second on a ground ball, beating Eduardo Nunez’s throw to the base from deep in the hole. The added hustle turned a force-out into an infield single for Jose Iglesias, and moments later, Bradley was rounding the bases ahead of Iglesias as part of a four-run second inning that provided the Red Sox all the offense they would need in an 8-2 victory.
“The key of the second inning, the four-run inning, was him beating out the throw to second base,” manager John Farrell said of Bradley. “Not a bad way to start his career.”
Bradley, who’s been praised for his defense as much as his offense, was in an unfamiliar role in left field, a position he’d never played before. Yet he was able to save a run with an outstanding defensive play to end the bottom of the third. With Brett Gardner on second base, Robinson Cano launched a deep fly ball to the opposite field. Bradley turned his back to the infield and sprinted straight toward the wall before twisting his body at the base of the warning track and making the catch before crashing into the wall. The play surely saved a run, and it got starter Jon Lester into the fourth inning with a manageable pitch count.
“It was hit over my head right off the bat and I just started running back and I tried to pick a spot where it was going to land,” Bradley said. “I looked up at the right time, and there it was coming right at me.”
Bradley’s day was far from over, though. After striking out in the fourth, he got the rookie treatment in the fifth, with Joe Girardi calling for an intentional walk to Jonny Gomes prior to Bradley stepping to the plate. The 22-year-old likely wanted to prove that intentional walk to be a mistake by launching a Sabathia pitch into the right-field bleachers, but he instead showed a veteran’s patience to work his second walk in his third major league plate appearance.
Farrell said he saw the same player he watched all spring.
“Similar patience, similar maturity at the plate,” Farrell said. “Good day for him.”
Bradley’s eventful afternoon continued in the top of the seventh, when he stepped to the plate with the Sox holding on to a 4-2 lead, with two runners on and one out. The Red Sox called for a safety squeeze play on three occasions, but Bradley pulled back his bunt attempt all three times on pitches outside of the zone. With a 3-1 count, Bradley turned around a fastball and sent it right back where it came from. Reliever Boone Logan was able to get some leather on it, and the ball deflected right to Robinson Cano, who threw to first to retire Bradley, but not before Will Middlebrooks scampered home from third base.
The crucial insurance run gave the Red Sox some breathing room, and it gave Bradley his first major league RBI.
Seemingly only for good measure, Bradley worked his third walk of the game in the ninth inning and later came around to score the Red Sox’ eighth and final run. His final stat line looked like this: 0-for-2, RBI, 3 BBs, 2 R’s.
“It was exciting. It’s very memorable, I’ll never forget it,” said Bradley, who added he wasn’t nervous at all. “Just trying to be myself, play my game and everything else will take care of itself.”
That said, it wasn’t all good news for Bradley after the win.
“It’s just great, being able to get the first one out of the way,” Bradley said. “I can’t wait to get back on the field again. I got an off day tomorrow, so I’m pretty bummed about that.”
It’s appropriate for Bradley to be a major story line after opening day, considering he was the story for the entirety of spring training. The debate about whether he should begin the season in the majors or minors didn’t focus on his ability as much as it did about extending his contract for another full season if he spent most of the first two weeks of the season in Triple-A.
The Red Sox, should it come down to it, can still salvage that contract year if they send Bradley to the minors for 20 consecutive days at any point this season. Of course, if he routinely looks as good as he did on Monday, sending him down won’t be an option. But, if his contributions play a major role in a victory, as they did in his debut, the Red Sox will tell you that there are much worse problems for a ballclub to have.