Mookie Betts was excited. After 235 games in professional baseball, Sunday would mark his first as an outfielder.
Cognizant of his torrid start on offense – only one hitter in minor league baseball entered the day with a higher batting average than his .383 – the Boston Red Sox want to see how versatile Betts can be. In Dustin Pedroia, they already have a second baseman for the foreseeable future.
So Betts played center field Sunday in a 2-1 victory over the Trenton Thunder before the first Hadlock Field sellout of the season, a crowd of 7,368 that included canines (it was Bark in the Park Day) and kids (and a few adults) dressed as superheroes.
“He kept telling me before the game, let them hit it out there,” said Sea Dogs starter Mike Augliera.
“As a ground-ball pitcher, if they hit it in the air, I’m not doing too well. Nothing personal, but I’d rather have the ball hit on the ground.”
The first three Trenton batters flied out, but Henry Ramos in right and Peter Hissey in left took care of those. Betts fielded only two chances in center, on consecutive batters in the fifth inning.
After Tyler Austin led off with a wall double, Rob Refsnyder bounced a run-scoring single up the middle. Betts charged in, gloved the ball and kept his relay throw low to cut-off man Travis Shaw just behind the pitching mound. The next batter hit a routine fly to Betts, and his defensive day was done.
“Augie’s the story,” said Sea Dogs Manager Billy McMillon. “Not Mookie.”
Indeed, Augliera retired 11 of the final 12 batters he faced, holding Trenton to five hits over eight innings as the Sea Dogs (26-14) swept the series for their fourth straight victory and improved to a season-best 12 games over .500.
They are scheduled to finish the homestand with six games in four days against Binghamton, including 5 p.m. doubleheaders Monday and Wednesday.
McMillon said the timing of Betts’ streak ending and position switch was coincidental; regular center fielder Shannon Wilkerson stubbed his toe Saturday making a seventh-inning catch against the wall and could use some rest.
With Dustin Pedroia a fixture at second base for the Red Sox, the path to Fenway Park for Betts appears blocked. He entered the game leading the Eastern League in batting average (.383), hits (59), stolen bases (18), on-base percentage (.452) and slugging percentage (.591).
Ben Crockett, Boston’s director of player development, was in town this weekend watching the Sea Dogs. He said Betts has been taking balls in center field during batting practice, both this spring and last fall in the Arizona Fall League.
“He’s going to get opportunities to play both,” Crockett said. “He is continuing to improve at second base and has done a really good job there. We thought this would be a good time, in this atmosphere, for him to get some exposure (to outfield).”
Crockett said McMillon will decide on a daily basis where Betts will play on defense, and that the move is not permanent.
“Giving Mookie the best chance to develop defensively at second base is still going to be important,” he said. “He’s not moving to center field. He’s being exposed to it.”
On Sunday, Betts’ defensive opportunities were limited as Augliera walked one, struck out five and allowed only two runners as far as second base. He retired the side in order in the first, sixth and seventh by relying on a late-sinking fastball mixed in with an occasional change-up and slider. His pitch count was at 90 through eight innings (with 64 strikes) when McMillon opted for reliever Noe Ramirez, who earned his third save with a perfect ninth.
Sea Dogs shortstop Deven Marrero provided the defensive play of the game by reaching a sharply-hit grounder deep in the hole, leaping high while fading away and throwing a strike to Shaw at first base to retire Trenton’s Carmen Angelini. Marrero’s momentum carried him all the way to the stands in shallow left field.
“That was probably THE best play I’ve ever seen in person,” Augliera said. “Any ball hit that way you just figure it’s going to be fielded because he’s the best I’ve seen.”
The Sea Dogs managed only three hits against Trenton lefty Jeremy Bleich (3-4), all in the second and third innings. Catcher Blake Swihart bounced a single to center and Heiker Meneses drew a two-out walk in the second. McMillon sent both runners on a pitch that Derrik Gibson grounded up the middle, scoring Swihart for a 1-0 lead.
Betts made it 2-0 in the third. He singled sharply through the shortstop hole, advanced when Shaw attempted to beat Trenton’s overshift with a bunt, stole third and scampered home when the throw skipped into left.
One day after his streak of reaching base ended at 66 straight regular-season games, Betts went 1 for 3 with a walk. He leads the Eastern League in stolen bases with 19 and has scored 45 runs. Nobody else even has 30.
“A new day, start a new (streak), that’s all I looked at,” said Betts, whose sartorial selection of a Batman T-shirt was merely coincidental to the team’s superhero promotion. “I’m always trying to find a way to affect the game, no matter what it is.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: