BOSTON — The last time Rafael Devers felt nervous, he wasn’t sure how to handle it. This was a new experience, after all, and he’d never seen many of these pitchers before. He was only 21. It was understandable. But then he dug into the box for that first plate appearance, and the butterflies dissipated.
Not the plate appearance in which he worked a walk against the best lefthanded pitcher in the sport, one of two times on base during Game 1 of the World Series, which his Red Sox won 8–4. It was the first plate appearance of spring training, in which he worked a walk against Northeastern freshman Harry Ennen.
“I was worried about what was gonna happen,” Devers said, through team interpreter Daveson Perez.
Sorry, just to confirm, the last time you were nervous was in February? So you were more nervous for spring training than for the World Series?
Twenty minutes into his 22nd birthday, Devers grinned, then answered in English. “Yeah!”
It was that calm—not to mention his ability to pressure Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw—that manager Alex Cora expected when he told his third baseman Monday night that he would start on Tuesday in Game 1 of the World Series. Devers’s reaction must have confirmed his hopes.
“It was like, whatever,” Devers said. “Come here and play some baseball.”
Devers did not play as much baseball as he wanted to this season. After a rookie year in which he had an .819 OPS in the regular season and slugged .909 in the playoffs, he entered spring training as the presumptive third baseman. He’d never been in that position before, hence the nerves. The new coaching staff had done its best to make him feel valued—Cora and infield coach Carlos Febles visited him in his native Dominican Republic on the day after Christmas—but Devers still worried that he would not live up to his first year. He largely did not, finishing with a .731 OPS and 24 errors, and as the postseason began, he lost his starting job to 31-year-old Eduardo Núñez. Devers played in only two of the Red Sox’ four ALDS games and four of the five in the NLCS.
But hitting coach Tim Hyers noticed in September that Devers’s batting practice was improving, that he was focusing on staying balanced through his swing. After such a frustrating year—a year in which Devers said he was proud of exactly nothing he had done—Hyers hoped Devers had rediscovered the stroke that made him Baseball Prospectus’ No. 13 prospect entering 2017. “It’s like all hitters,” Hyers said. “They gain some confidence and they ride with it.”
In Game 5 of the ALCS, which Boston won to clinch the pennant, Devers stayed back on a 98-mph fastball from Astros ace Justin Verlander and lined it into the leftfield stands for a three-run homer that put the game out of reach. Hyers knew Devers was ready.
So when Cora began suggesting that it might make sense for Devers’s first postseason start against a lefty to come against Kershaw, Hyers agreed. With their other righthanded platoon players—first baseman Steve Pearce and second baseman Ian Kinsler—starting, Devers’s presence allowed them to keep the righthanded Núñez on the bench as a late-innings pinch-hit option.
As it had for much of October, that opportunity came at the expense of Devers. Núñez had been disappointed to learn he wouldn’t start Game 1, but Cora told him to be ready for L.A. to bring in a lefthanded specialist to face Devers. “You might have a big at bat tonight and do your thing,” Cora told Núñez.
Devers singled in the fifth inning to drive in the eventual winning run and to extend his postseason RBI streak to eight starts, the longest in history to start a career. Two innings later, the Dodgers called upon lefty Alex Wood. Cora substituted Núñez, who drove the second pitch he saw into the Green Monster seats. Devers celebrated as hard as anyone else. “He’s my most important teammate,” he said later of the man who helps him practice his footwork at third base.
Through his struggles this season, Devers reminded himself to stay in the moment. That was easier some days than others. But on Tuesday, after the game, first baseman Mitch Moreland asked Devers what he wanted for his birthday. Devers cocked his head. “I don’t know,” he said. It hadn’t occurred to him to think that far ahead."