Pro Hogs:

For Benintendi, the best is yet to come

By: Stephen Hunt, Special to Hawgs Illustrated
Published: Saturday, May 12, 2018
Boston Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi was second in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2017.
Photo by Billie Weiss, Boston Red Sox
Boston Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi was second in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2017.

In 2016, Andrew Benintendi made a grand entrance onto one of baseball’s biggest stages.

In 34 games with Boston, the former Razorback hit .295 and had an OPS (on-base plus slugging) of .835. Benintendi, the seventh pick in the 2015 draft, also played three games in the 2016 American League Division Series against Cleveland and hit .333 with one home run and 2 RBI.

Last season, his first full big-league campaign, he batted .271 with 20 home runs, 90 RBI and a .776 OPS, a performance which earned him a runner-up finish for AL Rookie of the Year to Yankees slugger Aaron Judge.

Benitendi takes pride in his 2017 accomplishments, but also realizes baseball is about ongoing improvement, so he’s striving to do even more in 2018.

“Yeah, I think I just want to be more consistent. This entire season, I’ve been trying to find my swing,” he said. “Haven’t really gotten into a groove at all, so just got to keep working. It’ll click eventually, hopefully sooner than later.”

For the second straight season, he ended the year in the playoffs. However, the Sox had a tough draw in the 2017 AL Division Series against Houston, a team led by another Arkansas product in Dallas Keuchel, an Astros squad that went on to win their first World Series.

Benintendi always loves competing against fellow ex-Razorbacks, a fraternity he’s honored to be part of.

“I’ve been able to run into them once in a while,” he said. “It’s pretty cool to see the players before and where they are now. Being able to play against them, it’s been pretty cool.”

The Astros needed just four games to eliminate the Sox, prevailing 3-1 after a series-clinching 5-4 win at Fenway Park on Oct. 9, 2017. Two days later, Boston fired then-manager John Farrell, the only big-league skipper Benintendi had known. On Nov. 2, the Sox announced Alex Cora as Farrell’s replacement.

And Cora has already made a favorable first impression on his left fielder.

“He’s been awesome. He’s relatable, he’s not too far removed from playing,” Benintendi said. “They (him and our coaches) will tell you how it is. They also like to keep it loose and have fun. Over the course of a season, it can get monotonous and it is (a grind). Just to be able to keep it loose is nice.”

Benintendi is part of a talented, young Red Sox core expected to be franchise cornerstones for years to come, a group also including Mookie Betts, already a two-time AL All-Star; shortstop Xander Bogaerts, part of Boston’s 2013 World Series championship squad who is still only 25; outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr.; and third baseman Rafael Devers, a former top prospect who debuted last summer at 20.

However, the Sox also have several proven veterans in their lineup like JD Martinez, Mitch Moreland, a 2016 Gold Glove first baseman with Texas who played in two World Series, and the well-traveled Hanley Ramirez, a former rookie of the year, all-star and batting champion.

Benintendi and Moreland have been teammates for just over a year, but Moreland, who played at Mississippi State, likes what he’s seen.

“He kind of plays beyond his years. He’s a young guy, but he slows the game down,” Moreland said. “He impacts the game in a lot of different ways. He can run, he plays great in the outfield, he puts in good, solid at-bats. He finds ways to get on base. He’s got a little bit of it all in him and the way he’s able to stay calm in any situation is impressive.”

As one of five Red Sox with SEC roots, Benintendi is reminded of his Razorback roots daily. He only spent two seasons in Fayetteville, but they were impactful years, especially his final season as a Hog in 2015, when he helped lead UA to the College World Series, was named SEC Player of the Year, won the Dick Howser Trophy and the Golden Spikes Award.

“It was a good time, a really nice place to play,” Benintendi said. “Made some really good friends along the way, definitely glad I chose Arkansas. It was awesome (to play at Baum Stadium). I think that at a lot of colleges, a lot of fans don’t show up for baseball games like they do down there. It seemed like it was always packed.”

Benintendi feels playing before those great UA crowds helped prepare him for his big-league debut at Seattle’s Safeco Field on Aug. 2, 2016.

“I just remember the stadium, it’s so much bigger. I was able to have my family there, which was really nice,” he said. “I just tried to keep it as simple as possible, try to think that it’s the same game (I’ve played my whole life), just more people watching.”

He also realizes how special it is for him and his teammates to call Fenway, which opened in 1912 and is MLB’s oldest stadium, home.

“Obviously, a lot of history there, especially playing in left, where there’s been a lot of really good players,” he said. “It’s something you don’t take for granted, just try and enjoy it as much as possible. It feels like it’s always sold out.”

Boston started 2018 by winning 17 of its first 18 games. But Benintendi knows the only thing that matters is how the Sox fare in the playoffs.

And after seeing them eliminated in the first round of the postseason in 2016 and 2017, Boston’s rabid fans are anxious to see meaningful October baseball again in 2018.

“It’s something you work for in spring training and in the offseason. Once the postseason starts, it’s a whole new season,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter how you get there, it’s just being there and ready to play. Yeah, the last two years being in the playoffs, not making it out of the first round, but just getting that experience, it’s been really good. Hopefully we go a little bit further this year.”


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