“Reminds me of myself in '06, when I was trying to make the team [Florida Marlins],’’ said Ramirez after Betts raised his spring average to .471 with a double and inside-the-park home run in Sunday’s 7-6 Red Sox win over the Philadelphia Phillies in JetBlue Park.
Ramirez wasn’t bragging. He was the same age as Betts when he lit up Marlins camp that spring (.311/.354/.568/.922 slash line, with 2 doubles, 4 triples and 3 home runs), a preview of the Rookie of the Year performance he put on for Florida in the regular season.
But outside of Kris Bryant's power display for the Chicago Cubs in Arizona, no one has put on a better show this spring than Betts, the 22-year-old Tennessee native who seemingly opens every game with an extra-base hit and on Sunday circled the bases when his drive to dead center flew over the head of Phillies outfielder Odubel Herrera, who then had trouble finding the ball at his feet.
"I thought it was going to be a double,’’ Betts said. “When I got close to second, I figured I might as well try and go three. And as I was going three, Butter made the right decision to send me home, so I kind of just went with the flow.''
“Butter” is Sox third-base coach Brian Butterfield.
“Mookie’s about 30 feet from third base in relation to where the ball was and Butter waved him on,’’ manager John Farrell said. “He had to take off again, but he’s got that kind of second gear. We’re getting to know not only his base-running intelligence, but his ability to get back into full stride. An exciting ‘tools’ player."
Betts has a Grapefruit League-leading 16 hits this spring. Nine have been for extra bases: six doubles, two triples and the inside-the-park home run.
"I saw him last year,’’ Ramirez said. “I was watching one game [on TV]. They were playing New York, New York [Yankees] and he hit a home run. I was, ‘Wow, who’s this kid?'"
They’re well beyond the introduction stage now. “He’s got a lot of talent,’’ Ramirez said. “He can play the game.''
When the Sox opened camp, Betts was expected to compete with Rusney Castillo for the center field job, especially after Farrell declared the returning right fielder Shane Victorino his starter at the outset. But Castillo strained his left oblique muscle in a college exhibition game, missed a couple of weeks, and Betts has been a daily highlight reel. Now, Castillo is back, homering and tripling in his first two games, but the competition in center is over. What the Sox do with Castillo is for Farrell and GM Ben Cherington to figure out.
“Oh, man, we got a lot of good players,’’ Ramirez said. “We’re going to have to try to get one more outfielder out there, so we can all play. You know, four outfielders.''
Farrell, perhaps mindful of the hype that surrounded young players Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. the last two springs only to see both young players endure significant struggles as rookies, is trying to keep a leash on the exuberance surrounding Betts’s play. It’s not easy.
“He’s obviously driving the ball consistently,’’ Farrell said. “He gives you a threat even as the game begins. He’s an exciting player. Take away the fact he hits an inside-the-park homer his second at-bat today, it’s still the [overall] ability. He’s always on time, hitting-wise. He’s quick to hit pitches both from right-handers and left-handers. Before we get too far out there on him, it’s exciting to see.''
And just when you thought you had found something to nit-pick, that Betts has had a little trouble with balls hit over his head, Farrell revealed that has been by design.
"The work he needed defensively coming into spring training was going back on the ball,’’ Farrell said. “Purposely we’ve had him play shallow to track balls that otherwise would be routine or deep fly balls but end up over his head. When we start the season, his alignment will be a little bit deeper. We’ve just taken the opportunity to work on breaks getting back to balls.''
Betts, remember, was a second baseman until the Sox converted him into an outfielder last summer, his initiation essentially coming at the big-league level.
“I still have some work to do in the outfield, routes to balls, still things to work on,’’ Betts said.
But he admits there isn’t a whole lot more he could be doing at the plate.
“I think I’m in a pretty decent spot,’’ he said. “It’s going to be hard to maintain, as [opposing pitchers] start learning more and more about me. I feel like it’s going to be a chess match, both sides making adjustments. I'll let it naturally happen, do it right.''
Even before taking the field Sunday, Betts had added to the legend, running a winning final leg of an obstacle course relay designed by Farrell. His teammates mobbed him when he crossed the finish line. Why the unbridled joy? The winning team didn’t have to take Tuesday’s long bus ride to Jupiter.
“He’s my boy,’’ Pablo Sandoval said. “I love him.''
These days, who doesn’t love Mookie?
“Nothing is given to me,’’ he said when asked about the likelihood of opening the season in center field. “I’ve got to take care of what I can take care of. Until I get on the plane, that’ll be the final judgment.''