Too much, too soon? Red Sox must pump brakes with struggling Yoan Moncada

SAN DIEGO -- As Yoan Moncada stared at another off-speed pitch for another called third strike in the eighth inning Tuesday night, and trudged back to the dugout after his seventh strikeout in as many at-bats, the Boston Red Sox must have been wondering how they got here with their can't-miss phenom.

Blame Andrew Benintendi.

Not literally, of course. Benintendi has absolutely nothing to do with Moncada's struggles since getting called up -- rushed, it appears -- from Double-A Portland last week to give the Red Sox a jolt of energy for the playoff push. Getting picked off first base last Sunday in Oakland, the seven consecutive strikeouts over the past two games in San Diego, looking overmatched against breaking pitches -- that's all on Moncada.

Indirectly, though, Benintendi's almost immediate success last month after he was called up from Double-A might have convinced the Red Sox that Moncada could handle the leap, too. Instead, Benintendi merely wrecked the learning curve for his fellow top prospect.

Last week, as the Red Sox were leaning toward promoting Moncada, manager John Farrell compared the 21-year-old's potential impact to the late-season call-ups of Jacoby Ellsbury and Xander Bogaerts to Boston's World Series runs in 2007 and 2013, respectively. Farrell also invoked Benintendi, the rookie who made his major league debut on Aug. 2 and quickly took over as the everyday left fielder by going 22-for-68 (.324) with six doubles, one homer, an .850 OPS and one leaping catch to rob a home run two weeks ago at Tampa Bay before spraining his left knee and winding up on the disabled list.

But although Benintendi is only 10 months older than Moncada and actually had 197 fewer plate appearances in the minor leagues, he's a much more polished hitter. Benintendi played two seasons at the University of Arkansas, a big-time SEC program, and won the Golden Spikes Award as the best college player in 2015. Moncada, meanwhile, sat out for most of 2014 after leaving his native Cuba in pursuit of a professional baseball career in the United States.

The difference is all the difference. While Benintendi proved he was ready to play every day by recognizing the ways he was being pitched to and adapting accordingly, Moncada has looked lost as Padres pitchers have challenged him with curveballs, sliders and changeups. In Tuesday night's 5-1 victory, he struck out four times on 20 pitches, 11 of which were fastballs. That came after Monday's 2-1 loss, in which he whiffed three times on 18 pitches, only three fastballs.

"They've thrown a lot of [off-speed pitches] and it's been throwing me off a little bit," Moncada said through interpreter Daveson Perez. "But I just have got to work on seeing them better and making contact. These weren't my first strikeouts, and they won't be my last. Just got to keep moving forward and know that the players that strike out are the players that are actually playing in the game."

That's a healthy outlook, one that probably was inspired by a postgame pep talk from Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski. Moncada also got a between-innings visit in the dugout from David Ortiz, who told him about the 10 times in his storied career that he struck out four times in a game, including Oct. 1, 1999, when he was a young player struggling to crack the Minnesota Twins' lineup.

"He just told me that, first of all, that happened to him when he first broke into the big leagues. He struck out four times in one game," Moncada said. "And [Ortiz said] that the game's not easy. It's a process."

For a few days, at least, the Red Sox seem to have forgotten about that.

On Monday, Farrell said Moncada's first exposure to the big leagues is "very similar" to Bogaerts' in 2013, in terms of the hands-on instruction from the coaching staff. But Bogaerts started only 12 of 34 games down the stretch after being called up on Aug. 19. Looking back, he says watching from the bench helped prepare him for the postseason when he took over at third base for a struggling Will Middlebrooks.

"The best thing, I would probably say, was watching the games. I'm not even joking with you," Bogaerts said. "You're more calmed down because you're not worried about getting a hit or making a good play to help your team out. You can just watch how the older guys do it, and that helps prepare you when you have to go in there."

But rather than easing Moncada into the lineup, Farrell anointed him the third baseman against right-handed pitchers, benching struggling Travis Shaw in the process. Too much, too soon? It certainly appears that way. Just because Benintendi emerged as an everyday player doesn't mean Moncada was equally ready.

"He's getting pitched to," Farrell said. "He's seeing some things here for the first time -- 3-2 breaking balls for strikes, backdoor breaking balls from left-handers -- that I'm sure in Portland and in the Eastern League he's not going to see all that often. Not uncommon that some of these firsts are going to be challenges for him. These are growing opportunities for him."

Farrell said Moncada won't be in the lineup Wednesday night. The Red Sox will give him at least one day to do extra work with hitting coaches Chili Davis and Victor Rodriguez -- "rebuild and regroup," as Farrell called it -- before the Red Sox travel to Toronto for a first-place showdown with the Blue Jays beginning Friday night.

By then, Moncada won't suddenly have adjusted to big league pitching. But he might be able to take a deep breath, relax and not feel so much pressure to ignite the Red Sox's push for October.

Maybe Benintendi can do that when he comes off the disabled list in a few weeks.