On Tuesday afternoon in Ft. Myers, Pawtucket faced a Durham Bulls team featuring a “ringer” on the mound – Tampa Bay Rays flamethrower David Price.
The end result wasn’t pretty for the PawSox. Price tossed 7 scoreless innings, struck out 8 batters, and only allowed one hit.
I’m here to tell you about the hit.
In his first at-bat, Pawtucket first baseman Aaron Bates pulled a 94-mph fastball directly into the teeth of a 20-mph wind and hit the ball at least 350 feet to left field. The ball landed on the warning track for a double, but on most days – in most ballparks – it would have been long gone.
“That was a home run,” Bates told me with a grin after the game. “No one catches that ball. That ball is over the outfield billboards in Pawtucket.
“Facing Price was fun. I was telling somebody the other day that I’d like to face (Washington Nationals phenom) Stephen Strasburg or somebody like that because when you face the upper-tier pitchers you learn what it looks like at that level. You want to see what those guys have. So it’s a good measuring stick as far as where I’m at this spring.”
(photo courtesy of Kelly O’Connor)
The 26-year-old first baseman spent most of the spring in major league camp, and batted .179 (5-for-28) in 17 games for Boston.
“My spring up until this point has been a little inconsistent,” Bates said. “I had some great at-bats in big league camp, but didn’t have great numbers. When you’re a young guy you want to get in there and show them what you can do, but you don’t want to press. It was nice being up there. Big league camp was a great experience – I learned a lot. And having RJ (former PawSox manager Ron Johnson) there helped a lot because he’s always laughing and in a great mood.”
Last season was a breakthrough year for Bates as he climbed from Double-A to Boston. He thrived in Double-A batting .340/.405/.505 in 52 games with Portland, and did well in his limited taste of major league ball, going 4-for-11 (.364) with 2 doubles in 5 games with the Red Sox.
Triple-A was the only level where Aaron struggled as he batted .213/.285/.305 in 76 games with Pawtucket. He admits that being just a 45-minute drive from Fenway Park was mentally challenging.
“When you’re in Triple-A with the Red Sox, you’re so close to Boston that you can get caught up in a lot of that stuff,” Bates said. “In Portland, I just went about my business every day and played baseball. In Pawtucket, guys are in the locker room one day and gone the next and there is a lot of media attention – you almost have to block all of that out and not think about Boston. You have to be like a little kid and just enjoy playing baseball and if the manager calls you into the office and tells you that you’re going to Boston, then you go there and try to do the same thing. If you get caught up in that stuff it’s going to drive you crazy and you’ll put too much pressure on yourself.”
Bates rebounded nicely over the winter as he spent three months in the Puerto Rican Winter League and batted .315/.370/.435 for Caguas.
“I was some of the most fun I’ve had playing baseball,” Bates told me. “I love playing there. It’s a unique experience. I hit probably the best home run I’ve ever hit in my life down there – it tied the game in Game 4 of the playoffs and the fans down there were going crazy.”
Aaron’s team won its opening round playoff series and he experienced something he isn’t likely to experience in the United States.
“When we clinched the first round of the playoffs there were random fans in the locker room celebrating with us so that was kind of fun,” Bates said. “It was Game 7 and we were playing against Carlos Delgado’s team and we wound up winning. Our clubbies went running on the field with champagne and left the clubhouse wide open. I have it on video – I’ll have to show you – as the team is celebrating in the clubhouse you can see random fans in street clothes celebrating with us.”
I look forward to seeing the video this summer . . . as well as more blasts like the one I saw Aaron hit off of David Price on Tuesday.