Xander Bogaerts is no third wheel among AL's best young shortstops


HOUSTON — If this was meant to be a statement, consider it heard, loudly and perfectly clearly: Yes, the Boston Red Sox can hang with the Houston Astros.

And yes, Xander Bogaerts belongs right next to Carlos Correa in the debate over the best shortstop in the American League.

With a chance to grab a share of first place in the AL East for the first time since April 18, the Red Sox edged the Astros 6-5 here on Sunday night. It was the rubber match of a three-game series, and it featured enough big plays from enough star players that a steamy June night deep in the heart of Texas became tinged with an October feel.

The Astros, whose 46-24 record remains the best in baseball despite dropping two of three games to the Red Sox, got home runs from Correa, Jake Marisnick and George Springer. And the Red Sox held a one-run lead when left fielder Andrew Benintendi threw out a runner at the plate in the eighth inning and catcher Christian Vazquez ended the game by nailing rookie Derek Fisher in an attempted steal of second base.

But nobody shined brighter than Bogaerts, who belted a solo homer to straightaway center field in the first inning, then hit a two-run shot to left field in the sixth. Bogaerts broke an 0 for 14 funk and doubled his season home run total while also flashing the kind of power that would make him as complete a hitter as there is in the league.

“I hate hitting a home run first at-bat, because then they’ll start pitching me tougher,” Bogaerts said with the endearing naivety of an All-Star who believes an opposing pitcher would ever overlook him. “But I got lucky that I was able to get another one in there.”

It wasn’t luck. The book on Bogaerts, now in his fourth full season in the big leagues, is to get him to chase sliders down and away. He laid off two such pitches from Astros starter Joe Musgrove with two outs in the first inning, then pounded on a fastball and crushed it.

Bogaerts was looking for a slider in the sixth inning. And when Musgrove threw one a little too far inside, Bogaerts was able to turn on it, hitting it into the Crawford Boxes in left field to give the Red Sox a 3-2 lead.

Coincidentally, Bogaerts’ homers were sandwiched around Correa’s solo shot in the bottom of the fifth against Red Sox starter David Price. Not since Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, Miguel Tejada and Edgar Renteria burst onto the scene together in the mid-1990s has baseball seen such an influx of young shortstops. Correa and Francisco Lindor of the Cleveland Indians tend to get the most attention, at least in the AL. But Bogaerts is no third wheel, not with a .307 average and .792 OPS since the start of the 2015 season.

“Those are two good guys you mentioned right there,” Bogaerts said. “But I feel like the American League this year has a lot of shortstops playing a lot of good baseball. Every team you play, they have one, you know? It’s the toughest I’ve seen it throughout the years that I’ve been playing so far.”

Correa, 22, has 55 career homers, the second most for a shortstop before turning 23 behind only A-Rod (95). After a slight dip in his power numbers last season, he’s back to being among the most feared sluggers in the league, with 13 homers and a .522 slugging percentage.

But Bogaerts, 24, has 470 hits in the past three seasons, second most of any player, after Astros second baseman Jose Altuve (503). And although a jammed left thumb has diminished Bogaerts’ power after a 21-homer season last year, he’s on pace to set a career high in doubles and has a .465 slugging percentage that beats his .415 career average. Clearly, Bogaerts has the ability to go deep, even though he often seems more content shooting singles to the opposite field.

If playing against Correa or Lindor brings out the best in Bogaerts, he isn’t letting on. If anything, he possesses a respect for his shortstop peers and recognizes their talent.

“I think if you try to catch up to them, you’ll probably go double backwards,” Bogaerts said. “Don’t try to overdo. Don’t try to hit three home runs a game to catch up to Correa. You just try to do your game, do the way you play, and the numbers will add up at the end of the year.”

The Red Sox and Astros won’t see each other again until September at Fenway Park in the final series of the regular season. By then, both teams might still be jockeying for playoff position. Or perhaps they already will be division champs. The Astros, after all, have a healthy lead in the AL West, while the Red Sox are duking it out with the New York Yankees in the AL East.

Regardless, if the past three days proved anything, it’s that a Red Sox-Astros postseason series could be wildly entertaining. And you can bet that Bogaerts and Correa would be at the center of it all.

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