BOSTON – Back on April 8, when the Boston Red Sox had just finished a season-opening series with the New York Yankees, the Portland Sea Dogs were set to begin their season in Reading, Pa.

Ryan Kalish, the leadoff hitter, stood in the box, working a 2-2 count. Kalish then hit a ball 415 feet for a home run.

We all knew then, didn’t we?

Kalish, 22, now plays with Boston and will be in the lineup most of this weekend when the Red Sox play a crucial series against the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg.

And to be honest, no one figured Kalish would be playing any kind of role in Boston’s playoff hunt this month. But there he is, the starting center fielder most nights. (The left-handed Kalish may sit out tonight’s game against lefty David Price.)

Going back to that night of April 8, Kalish dined after the game with his dad, Steve, at a local Applebees. They weren’t plotting Ryan’s path to the majors by August.

“It wasn’t even in our thoughts,” Steve said. “Maybe if he has a good year, he’d make Triple-A and maybe, maybe a September call-up.”

But here is Kalish, who struggled when he first came to Portland last year, now being hailed as the next starting outfielder for Boston, if not next year, then as J.D. Drew’s replacement in right field in 2012.

The Red Sox aren’t shy about their enthusiasm for Kalish. Triple-A Manager Torey Lovullo called him spectacular. Red Sox Manager Terry Francona gushed about Kalish during a radio interview last week on WEEI.

“You don’t find kids better than this,” Francona said.

Afraid this might go to Kalish’s head? Kalish already has experienced the highs and lows of the game to get caught overanalyzing every moment.

One of those lows came in Portland.

When Kalish was promoted to the Sea Dogs on May 15 of last year, he already had experienced adversity.

He was batting .368 in 23 games for Lowell in 2007 when he broke the hamate bone in his right wrist. His recovery was slow.

In 2009, Kalish was batting .304 in advanced Class A Salem when he was summoned to Portland.

Kalish had one hit in his first 21 at-bats and was hitting only .130 after three weeks.

Maybe he would be another touted high school player who faded away once he faced good pitching.

Kalish was an athletic standout for Red Bank (N.J.) Catholic High in northeast New Jersey. In the 2006 major league draft, he wasn’t picked early because scouts figured he was headed to the University of Virginia on a football/baseball scholarship. He would play quarterback.

The Red Sox took a chance on him with their ninth-round selection and signed Kalish after offering him a bonus usually reserved for the early-round picks ($600,000).

Both of Kalish’s parents, Steve and Eileen, grew up in the Boston area, and much has been made of that being a factor in Kalish signing with Boston.

“Being with the Red Sox was big, but it was more the opportunity to play baseball,” Kalish said.

When a minor league player reaches Double-A, it is seen as a turning point, a signal that the player might just make it to the majors. Kalish came to Portland fired up and then he flopped.

“Your effort level goes up because you’re nervous and you want to make an impression on everyone,” Kalish said at the time.

Kalish settled in to finish with a .271 average and 13 home runs for Portland. He was named the Red Sox minor league offensive player of the year, and the prospect label was being applied heavily.

But Kalish remained grounded. It’s just the way he’s been brought up. He still talks often with his father.

“My dad has always kept a really keen outlook on things,” Kalish said. “He just wanted me to go play. That’s what I’ve been doing, just having fun.

“We just keep it so simple, just talk about the day, not looking ahead.”

Kalish took that approach and his memories of 2009 into this year.

The 2010 season, despite the opening-game home run, began slowly. Kalish was hitting .224 near the end of April.

“The way I started (2009 with Portland) was a real, real big learning thing for me,” Kalish said.

“I didn’t get out to the hottest start this year. One of those things where, if you just play the game the right way, you take care of your business, you’re a good human being, you try and respect everybody, you go out there and play hard

“Yeah, you’re going to want to do well, and it’s not like I was totally happy with myself. I just felt like if I did my work it would turn around.

“Obviously it’s been a good turnaround.”

Kalish was hitting .293 with eight home runs for Portland when he was promoted May 31 to Pawtucket. In Triple-A, Kalish batted .294 with five home runs. His manager, Lovullo, was impressed.

“He’s going to be a pretty spectacular player in the years to come,” Lovullo said.

With injuries to Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron, Boston couldn’t wait for the years-to-come part. The Red Sox needed Kalish now and called him up July 31.

“I was surprised but pleasantly,” Kalish said. “It wasn’t like ‘Oh my god, I’m scared.’ It was ‘Wow, let’s do this.’ I felt like I was ready.”

He was playing for a team that not only features one of the most avid fan bases, but also in an area that was filled with relatives on both his mother’s and father’s side.

So many things to think about. But then there were words that his father often has said:

“You can’t make it bigger than it is.”

Kalish looked like he belonged immediately. He singled in his first at-bat and went 2 for 4 with an RBI.

On Aug. 6, Kalish hit his first major league home run, at Yankee Stadium, in front of several of his New Jersey friends and family.

“That was really surreal,” Steve Kalish said.

Then came the Aug. 17 home game against the Angels, when Kalish clubbed a grand slam off Jered Weaver. The impressive part was that Kalish turned on a good change-up by Weaver and still hit it into the Red Sox bullpen.

Both home runs were memorable, but they also helped the Red Sox to a pair of needed victories.

“Like I keep saying to everyone, I like that these moments that I’ve had were parts of wins,” Kalish said.

Since the grand slam, Kalish has had only two hits — both doubles — as his average has dropped to .233. But he has continued to play solid defense, at all three outfield positions, especially center.

You won’t find Kalish sulking about the numbers. He has impressed the Red Sox with his maturity and approach.

“It’s not surprising the way he’s handled himself,” said Mike Hazen, the Red Sox director of development. “He’s a pro. He has been since the day he stepped into the organization. He’s always had the makeup. He’s a gamer. You can see why he endears himself to a major league team and staff.

“The way he goes about it, he gets it. He always has. That’s the way he was brought up by his parents.”

And when he struggles, Kalish always can look back on his Portland days.

“That helps, for sure,” he said. “Because you feel the struggle here. You feel that you want to do amazing here.

“Sometimes you just have to realize that you just have to go out there and play the game hard and have good at-bats and help this team win.” 

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or at:

[email protected]