Why Andrew Benintendi could be a major postseason factor for Red Sox

BALTIMORE -- In the sixth inning Wednesday night, Andrew Benintendi ambushed a first-pitch fastball for a line-drive, three-run home run into the right-field bleachers at Camden Yards. The blast propelled the surging Boston Red Sox to their season-high seventh consecutive victory, a 5-1 win over the Baltimore Orioles.

And somewhere in Ohio, Dave Evans smiled.

Three decades as an amateur coach of a Cincinnati-area summer league team -- one that has produced dozens of major leaguers, including Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Larkin -- tell Evans that Benintendi shouldn't be here. Not yet. Not this quickly. Even first-round picks who have stellar careers in powerhouse college programs spend years refining their talent in the minors before getting their shot to play in the big leagues, especially for a World Series contender.

Yet here was Benintendi, 22 years old, already making his 23rd career start in the outfield for the Red Sox despite being drafted in the first round only 15 months ago. And here he was going deep with a sweet, left-handed stroke against tough Orioles reliever Brad Brach.

"It's amazing, just amazing," Evans said recently of Benintendi's rapid ascension. "We had [Kansas City Royals first baseman] Eric Hosmer play with us, and he had to spend his years [in the minors]. It's just amazing that Andrew is out there so quickly. You don't see it very often."

Then again, before Benintendi came along, it wasn't often that Evans had seen a 16-year-old play for his team, the Midland Redskins, which is composed mostly of 17- and 18-year-olds. But in 2011, with Benintendi slated to play against kids his own age, a spot opened up on Midland's roster.

Evans did what Red Sox manager John Farrell has done since Benintendi was called up from Double-A Portland at the beginning of August. He moved Benintendi, a natural center fielder, to left field and batted him ninth as a way of easing him in against older, more experienced competition.

"And that lasted for about five games," Evans said. "We moved him up to leadoff, and he took pitches, he got on base, he would bunt. He just became the best hitter on the team."

OK, so Red Sox leadoff man Dustin Pedroia doesn't need to start looking over his shoulder. He isn't in any danger of relinquishing the top spot in Boston's high-octane lineup.

There are indications, though, that Benintendi won't be in the No. 9 spot for long. Having returned from a three-week absence because of a left knee sprain that the Red Sox feared might knock him out for the balance of the season -- and having remarkably not lost a millisecond of his timing at the plate -- Benintendi might soon be movin' on up closer to the middle of the order.

"Yeah, I've thought about it," Farrell said after Benintendi extended his hitting streak to six games. "When we have our normal starting lineup there, when Hanley [Ramirez] is in that 5-hole, that 6 spot is a key spot for us. And when you can get the ability to maybe not fear a matchup, that would certainly continue to lengthen our lineup out."

While fellow top prospect Yoan Moncada has demonstrated he isn't ready for the big leagues, Benintendi is batting .317 with an .884 OPS in 82 at-bats. He has represented a strong matchup against right-handed pitchers. He's 22-for-62 (.355) with nine doubles, one triple and two homers against righties compared to 4-for-20 (.200) with no extra-base hits against lefties.

And so, as the Red Sox prepare for the playoffs -- yes, with a five-game lead in the American League East and 10 games remaining on the schedule, it's safe to start talking about playoffs -- the plan in left field is clear: Righty-swinging Farrell favorite Chris Young will start against left-handed pitchers, and Benintendi will be in the lineup against righties.

"It's been really fun," Benintendi said of being thrust into a pennant race. "Three weeks [on the disabled list] seemed like three months. It was fun watching, but after a while, it's like, yeah, I want to go out there and have fun with these guys. It's really good to be back."

Nothing seems to faze Benintendi. Not stepping to the plate after Orioles first baseman Chris Davis' throwing error had just allowed two runs to score and facing Brach, who has a 1.69 ERA in 67 appearances this season. Not having to wear a custom-fitted brace to protect his knee, a predicament that Benintendi says "kind of stinks, but is something I can deal with if it let me be out there." And certainly not being thrust into the glare of a pennant race.

"I mean, I think I was confident that I could play at this level," Benintendi said. "I knew there'd be some struggles a little bit. I think with guys around me and my teammates and coaches, they've made the transition a lot easier."

The Red Sox are hoping Benintendi, in his own way, can be this season's version of Kyle Schwarber, who was called up by the Chicago Cubs last year after being drafted in 2014 and made an enormous postseason impact with five homers in 27 at-bats.

No matter what happens, Evans won't be surprised.

"He's a great little athlete," he said of Benintendi. "He averaged, like, 25 points a game in basketball for two or three years [in high school]. Anything that he does, he's darned good at. And he adjusts to anything you throw at him."

With October beckoning, Benintendi is about to get his next challenge. There's no reason to believe he won't be ready for it.