DUNEDIN, Fla.-- Amid all the late-inning lineup shuffling that is typical in any spring training game, the Red Sox moved their center fielder to left field in the seventh inning against the Blue Jays on Friday. A normally minor move that would only show up in a box score.
This particular move, though, could have major implications for the Sox.
Jackie Bradley, Jr., started the game in center. In the seventh, manager John Farrell moved him to left. It was the first time since Bradley joined the Sox as a first-round pick (40th overall) out of the University of South Carolina in 2011 that he has played left. The first time, in fact, since he was a freshman at Prince George High in Virginia.
With the Sox still looking to round out their bench, and possibly find someone who can play all three outfield positions, giving Bradley some innings in left could be significant.
As recently as Tuesday, however, Farrell had said he had no plans to try Bradley in left this spring.
“No, if he’s not in center, he’ll probably be in right,” Farrell had said then.
But, after Friday’s game, a 1-0 loss, Farrell amended that.
“Well, we reserve the rights to change our minds and our plans,” he said. “That’s where he was at today.
“We’ve had some discussions - we want to take a look at him in left field.”
Putting Bradley into left would seem to bolster the speculation that he would make the team, but Farrell downplayed that.
“I wouldn’t read anything into it other than getting him some exposure in left field in the event that certain things fall a given way we want to be sure to cover all of our bases,” Farrell said.
The Jays challenged Bradley immediately. Adam Lind, the first batter of the seventh, drove a ball to left that Bradley tracked down for an out. In the eighth, Mark DeRosa and Maicer Izturis led off with singles to left before Bradley had to run into foul territory to corral Munenori Kawasaki’s fly ball near the fence for the first out. With two outs and two on, Kevin Pillar reached on a fielding error by third baseman Drew Sutton, with Bradley sprinting to retrieve the ball down the left-field line. Adam Loewen, pinch-running for DeRosa scored. But Bradley relayed the ball to shortstop Jonathan Diaz, whose throw home cut down pinch-runner Kevin Ahrens for the final out of the inning.
“Yeah, [I was busy],” said Bradley, who turns 23 on April 19. “Definitely I knew it was something, the ball’s always going to find you. So just trying to do my best center-field impersonation out there in left field. But I pretty much know balls hit are going to go towards the line. So I felt pretty comfortable.”
And he even threw out a runner in his first game as a left fielder.
“That was a long run,” Bradley said. “But it felt good. I just wanted to not try to do too much, get to it, plant my feet and make a strong throw to the cutoff man, and then after that it’s out of my hands.”
It wasn’t enough to stop the eventual winning run from scoring, but it was enough to show the Red Sox what Bradley could do in a limited sample.
“The first hitter [Lind], he’s in left field with he gets challenged pretty good and makes a heck of a play,” Farrell said. “The relay throw hits the cutoff man. [Bradley] goes against the wall to catch another foul ball out. He’s a very good defensive outfielder, regardless of the position.”
How many more opportunities will Bradley have in left?
“Yet to be seen,” said Farrell. “Because what’s going to happen tomorrow and Sunday, our regulars are going to go back-to-back . . . Monday at Sarasota might present a different opportunity for him to get back into left field. But we’ll take this final week and get some additional exposure there.”
Bradley, who leads the Sox with 118 defensive innings, said he was given no notice ahead of time of his move to left. He joked the team was trying to give him a break on his run from the visitors’ dugout on the third base side.
“They just asked me to go out there,” he said. “I just figured I’ve been playing a lot of innings. So I think they’ll give me a shorter run out there to left field to give me a little break.”
With the Sox likely without the services of left-handed hitters David Ortiz and Stephen Drew to start the season, adding the left-handed hitting Bradley would help to maintain some lineup balance. And the ability to play left field could also bolster his chances of making the team.
“Whatever position in the outfield they want me to play I’m willing to do,” he said. “I’m an outfielder, I just play in center field mostly. But I’m up for any different position and I just want to play baseball.”
Bradley went 1-for-4 on Friday with a strikeout and a two-out double in the first, one of the Sox two hits in the game. He is batting a team-leading.429 this spring, going 21-for-49 with four doubles, a home run, five RBI, nine runs scored, and a stolen base in 21 Grapefruit League games. He is tied for the team lead with 49 at-bats, and entered the day first among Grapefruit League qualifiers with a .545 on-base percentage, and was second in average.
If here were to be on the Opening Day roster?
“Special,” he said. “Everyone works hard to try to get there. It would be something I’ve always worked for. Anything’s possible.”
And if not?
“No, I wouldn’t be disappointed, he said. “I come into spring training not even a thought to even make the team. So I didn’t really set any expectations coming in. I just want to come in here, play hard, and show that I improved from last year. And hopefully I’m doing that.