BOSTON — It hasn’t gotten much attention because the team has far more glaring issues, but the Red Sox have endured a season-long problem starting ballgames at the plate.
Boston’s leadoff hitters are batting .071 in the first inning — by far the worst mark in the league — and haven’t set the table for the rest of the lineup with any consistency.
It’s not a coincidence they’ve found themselves constantly playing from behind. All five of their leadoff hits have been singles; the Sox are the only team in baseball without an extra-base hit to start the game.
“It hasn’t worked yet, the leadoff guy,” Alex Cora acknowledged. “But we’ll figure it out.”
Seventy games into the season, it can’t be chalked up to small sample size any longer. And Cora clearly knows that, as he’s already nixed Plan A.
To start the season, the manager wanted Andrew Benintendi batting first to give Mookie Betts more traffic and RBI opportunities. It made sense in theory — the reigning MVP only drove in 80 runners last season — but when Benintendi struggled there for almost two months, Cora was forced to adapt.
Michael Chavis was given a cup of coffee in the No. 1 spot before his bat chilled, and eventually, Cora has gone back to Betts at the top of his lineup card.
However, a return to his 2018 spot hasn’t yet meant a return to 2018 form for Betts.
The lackluster leadoff cost the Sox again last night, as Betts popped out to start the game. Two batters, later J.D. Martinez smoked a home run over the Boston bullpen — it was a solo shot.
Something positive has come out of the lineup shakeup though, as Benintendi looks far more comfortable hitting second again.
“Maybe he likes to see Mookie in front of him and go from there,” Cora suggested.
Benintendi was dismissive of that idea, saying he didn’t feel any difference batting behind Betts, but the numbers don’t lie.
After being bumped from the leadoff spot in late May, Benintendi was batting .318 with a .933 OPS, and had seven extra-base hits (five doubles, a triple and a homer) in his first 11 games.
“I don’t even feel locked in right now,” Benintendi said. “I’ve been trying to search for it all year. Just because I’ve had a few good games, barreling it up, it doesn’t mean I’m necessarily back. But it’s the right direction.”
Not even after two doubles and a triple on Wednesday night against the Rangers?
“No, not at all,” Benintendi replied. “Talk to me in a week in a half. If I’m getting three every game then I’ll be locked in.”
Benintendi’s reemergence is a silver lining, but Cora knows he needs more from the top of his lineup card. He’s optimistic that a breakout is coming.
“I think it’s just a matter of time,” Cora said. “Obviously Mookie is going to get hot, J.D., those two haven’t been hot the whole season at the same time. The top three haven’t been hot the whole season.
“Go back and look at their baseball cards, they will get hot,” Cora said referring to career stats. “The hope is for everybody to get hot at the same time and get on that hot streak. That’s the way I see it.”
Chris Mason is a Red Sox beat writer for the Eagle-Tribune and CNHI Sports Boston. Email him at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter at @ByChrisMason