PORTLAND – Portland Sea Dogs pitching coach Bob Kipper took his turn throwing batting practice. Anthony Rizzo stepped into the cage, his stance open, holding his bat high and twirling it slightly as he waited for the pitch.
Kipper delivered. Rizzo closed his stance and swung.
The ball landed in the right-field pavilion.
The next one sailed left of the pavilion, still rising, clearing the two-story clubhouse and landing somewhere in Fitzpatrick Stadium.
Kipper dropped his arms to his sides and sighed with a big smile.
The big kid can hit them a long way.
Rizzo, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound first baseman, is a player on the rise — ranked Boston’s No. 8 prospect by Baseball America and No. 4 by soxprospects.com.
Rizzo still has work to do, evident by his .244 average in 42 games since his promotion to Double-A on May 10.
But there are reasons to be excited about Rizzo, who is only 20.
Rizzo signed with the Red Sox after being drafted in the sixth round in 2007 out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., 30 miles northeast of Fort Lauderdale.
As a pro, Rizzo dominated quickly. But then came a serious setback. Just 21 games into the 2008 season, when Rizzo was batting .373 for Class A Greenville, he was diagnosed with limited stage classical Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The high-energy Rizzo had been inexplicably fatigued throughout spring training. Finally, a kidney infection was diagnosed and further tests revealed cancer.
Instead of playing his first full pro season, Rizzo underwent chemotherapy.
“They just told me what I was going to do and hopefully it would be gone,” Rizzo said. “Every treatment I did, we just took it full on.”
You can’t talk about Rizzo, without mentioning those around him, including his parents, John and Laurie, and an older brother, John.
“First of all, he’s an amazing kid who comes from a great family,” said Laz Gutierrez, the Red Sox scout who signed Rizzo. “They’re great people. They did a great job of raising Anthony and his brother.”
Before the 2007 high school season began, Gutierrez was not sure the Red Sox would be interested in Rizzo. He was a little heavy and seemed to be only a pull hitter.
“Then I went to see him play in the spring,” Gutierrez said. “I saw this slimmer version of Anthony. He wasn’t a dead pull hitter any more. He was a guy who had a mature approach, attacking the middle of the field, driving the ball to all fields.”
“From there on I fell in love with him. He became my gut-feel guy.”
Once drafted and playing in the Red Sox system, others took notice. Scouts who follow Red Sox minor league teams came to Hadlock talking about the first baseman with all the tools.
A SWEET SWING
Sea Dogs Manager Arnie Beyeler met Rizzo when he brought a group of Red Sox minor leagues to the Dominican Republic in the offseason.
“To see him, and the way he worked, and to see his swing, you could tell he’s a pretty special kid,” Beyeler said.
“He’s a very game-savvy kid, a lot of awareness out there. He’s been schooled very well. You can tell he’s a baseball player. He’s very fluid in the field. His hands work well. He’s going to be a really good fielder. And he’s got a real pretty swing. He hits balls a long ways.”
But the cancer diagnoses was a setback. He missed the rest of the 2008 season, undergoing treatments. November, Rizzo was cancer-free, and he focused on getting ready for the 2009 season.
Rizzo bounced back. He batted .298 with nine home runs in 64 games with Greenville, then was promoted to advanced Class A Salem and hit .295 with three home runs.
Spring training in 2010 became special for a few reasons. His family and friends often made the two-hour trip across the state, on Alligator Alley, to see Rizzo in Fort Myers.
And Boston’s major league staff took notice of Rizzo. During major league spring training games, minor leaguers are often added to the roster as fill-ins in the late innings. But Rizzo was given a start March 30 against Tampa Bay in Port Charlotte. He went 3 for 5, including a home run off Rays closer Rafael Soriano, and played excellent defense, showing range while also scooping balls out of the dirt.
“Fun to see a kid hit a ball like that,” Boston Manager Terry Francona said at the time. “He’s got a real pretty swing and, defensively, he can handle himself.”
Rizzo certainly enjoyed himself: “It was good to go up in front of the big league staff and do that. Whenever anyone goes up there and has a good game, it makes everyone down here (in the minors) happy.”
‘YOU CAN SEE THE POWER’
Rizzo began this season in Salem, but soon after Lars Anderson was promoted from Portland to Triple-A Pawtucket, Rizzo was summoned to the Sea Dogs.
The first thing fans in Hadlock Field likely noticed was Rizzo’s effortless swing, which produces solid line drives and long home runs.
“The swing works without question,” Sea Dogs hitting coach Dave Joppie said. “You can see the power. Watch him take batting practice and I don’t think there is anybody in recent memory that can drive or hit the ball as far as he can, from center field over to the right-field line.
“He’s definitely hit some monster shots in batting practice. It’s going to be a process for that to transfer to the game. At times he does.”
Twice, Rizzo has homered off the elevated video board in right-center, two of his five home runs with Portland.
Joppie breaks down swings in two halves. Rizzo’s upper half works fine. The lower half, which involves a slight leg kick, needs refining.
“The constant struggle that we have is the consistency of rhythm, and getting his front foot down in time, which is the case with 99.9 percent of the guys here,” Joppie said.
“The main thing is he’s recognizing that and self-coaching it, and taking steps to correct it. It’s just predicated on how well he controls his lower half.
“The remedy for that is repetition, repetition, repetition — maybe 500 at-bats at this level; then at-bats at the next level.
“When it comes together, it’s going to be fun. That’s for sure.”
Watching Rizzo develop is currently the pleasure of Hadlock Field customers. As he continues to pound the ball, and does it more consistently, he’ll move on.
Today, the Hadlock video board. In the future, the Fenway triangle.
Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at: