ALDS defeat could be blessing in disguise for young Red Sox

BOSTON -- For his first act as the longest-tenured player on the roster of the post-David Ortiz 2017 Boston Red Sox, Dustin Pedroia might want to get Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. together for a little story time.

Nine years ago, at age 24, Pedroia went 2-for-13 (.154) with two strikeouts in his first career postseason series, a three-game sweep of the Los Angeles Angels. He batted leadoff and played an error-free second base, but it was the one-two middle-of-the-order punch of Big Papi and Manny Ramirez and dominant starting pitching from Josh Beckett and Curt Schilling that enabled the Red Sox to reach the 2007 American League Championship Series and ultimately the World Series.

The moral of the story: Betts and Bradley aren't the first young players to fail in their initial exposure to October baseball.

And in the long run, they might even be better off for having done so.

"It's a taste for them," Pedroia said late Monday night from the funeral home-like clubhouse at Fenway Park after the Sox were swept out of the division series by the Cleveland Indians. "I think the tough part is you play every day during the year and then you have a few days off. You wait different times between games. It just throws you out of whack. I think they didn't know what to expect out of that because it is different. It's hard to get into a rhythm."

Betts is an AL MVP candidate, perhaps even the front-runner. But he swung through three consecutive fastballs in his first postseason at-bat last Thursday night, struggled to adapt to the Indians' plan of attacking him out of the strike zone away and finished 2-for-10 in the three games.

Bradley, meanwhile, struck out in seven of his first nine postseason at-bats before lining a single to right field in the ninth inning of Game 3, his only hit in 10 at-bats. The normally rocket-armed center fielder also pulled three throws to the first base side of home plate in the series' first two games.

Add in shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who went fishing for sliders en route to striking out three times in Game 1 and finished 3-for-12 with four strikeouts overall, and the young homegrown trio that carried the Red Sox for so much of the season came up woefully small in a big spot.

"Playoff baseball is a bit different," said Bogaerts who notched a few memorable hits but was largely along for the ride when the Red Sox won the World Series in 2013. "It's a great experience, a lot of pressure. But we have to learn how to control it, how to think in that moment. Just not overthinking a lot of stuff. Just trying to be in the moment and being focused."

After Game 1, a 5-4 loss in Cleveland, Red Sox manager John Farrell conceded that he could sense the young players were feeling "a little anxiety." Despite being warned about putting added pressure on themselves in the postseason, Betts, Bradley and Bogaerts appeared "jumpy," according to Farrell.

Even rookie left fielder Andrew Benintendi, who homered in Game 1 and went 3-for-9 overall, made a fielding gaffe in the opening game, drifting under a fly ball and allowing a runner to tag from first and get into scoring position.

"There's been a lot of conversation for the first-year guys, for the guys going through it for the first time, and not just with the staff but with their teammates," Farrell said. "But there's the old adage: You can't replace experience. There's a different feel to it. The fact that we had three days down, a later [8 p.m.] start [in Game 1], five guys in our lineup being their first postseason, there were some things that were firsts, and I'm sure that lent to swinging at far too many pitches below the zone and above the zone."

And here's the thing about the postseason: With a smaller margin for error, mistakes tend to get magnified, the pressure to win becomes greater with each game.

But even with Ortiz retiring, the Sox have a nucleus that is talented enough to be a playoff staple over the next several years. Having now seen firsthand what the postseason is all about, they will be more prepared to handle it when they do return.

In a way, it feels reminiscent of the Philadelphia Phillies' recent mini-dynasty. In 2007, Ryan Howard (3-for-12, seven strikeouts), Chase Utley (2-for-11, five strikeouts) and Jimmy Rollins (2-for-11, three strikeouts) struggled in a three-game NL Division Series sweep by the Colorado Rockies, the first playoff experience for each of them. But they came back to lead the Phillies to back-to-back National League pennants in 2008-09 and a World Series title in 2008.

Could Betts, Bradley and Bogaerts follow suit?

"For a lot of the guys, this was the first time [in postseason]," Betts said. "I think we enjoyed it. Now we kind of know what to expect," Betts said. "It's going to be really important in the years going forward. We'll know what to expect and how to handle adversity and how to go about the games and whatnot. It's going to definitely be a positive."