ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Michael Chavis needs to stay.
And after what he did to the most dominant pitcher in the majors on Saturday night, one could argue he needs to start playing regularly.
Rays closer Jose Alvarado entered the day having faced 36 batters this year while allowing just four hits, all singles, while striking out 16 in 9- 1/3 scoreless innings. His triple-digits sinker has late movement and right-handers have struck out in half their plate appearances against him.
Then up stepped the Red Sox rookie, making his major league debut in a tie game in the ninth inning. And whack, on a 1-2 count Chavis hit a missile straight off the center-field wall for a double. His helmet came flying off as he slid into second. He pumped his fist and looked into the Red Sox dugout.
Chavis’ key hit pushed Jackie Bradley Jr. to third, Bradley scored on a sacrifice fly by Andrew Benintendi and the Red Sox came away with a 6-5 win over the first-place Rays.
As the cameras turned on for his first career postgame interview, Chavis smiled and said, “I’m going to turn off professional mode. That was awesome, honestly. I just need a second. Y’all are here in this moment with me and I need to celebrate. This is really cool.”
After 3½ weeks of playing mostly dry baseball with only moments of excitement, the Sox have a 23-year-old rookie who plays the game with the energy and excitement of a Little Leaguer.
“My backyard growing up, in my house we had a garden, and I can’t tell you how many times I envisioned that scenario there, pinch-hitting for the Boston Red Sox in the ninth inning off a closer who is nasty and getting a hit,” Chavis said. “I’ve tossed rocks in my backyard pretending I was in this moment. So I looked around and was like, ‘Wow.’
“Then with two strikes, thankfully Alvarado called time and I didn’t have to. I had two strikes on me and I felt my knee shaking, I’ll be honest. But he called time so I had a second to step out, gather myself before the next pitch. Wow. It’s been wild. It really has been.”
Saturday’s game was one of those that felt like it would count as two, with the Red Sox up 5-0 on a grand slam by Benintendi in the second inning, only to give all five runs back and watch the Rays tie the game, 5-5, on a solo shot in the eighth.
Bradley had been stuck in a slump but punched a single off Alvarado to start the ninth. Tzu-Wei Lin couldn’t get a bunt down — “I feel for him, that’s tough against that guy,” manager Alex Cora said — and made the first out.
Chavis fell behind 1-2, then got a low sinker, 99 mph, and smoked it. The ball jumped off his bat at 109 mph, the hardest-hit ball by any Red Sox player in four days. Kevin Kiermaier tried to track it down in center field but it went over his head and hit the wall.
“I know he doesn’t get burned much and he’s a Gold Glover, and I was like, ‘if you catch it, I’m going to fight you,’” a jubilant Chavis said. “I’m just kidding. But I knew I caught it pretty well. I knew he threw hard. I knew I caught a barrel. I was just praying it got over his head.”
The double was the first extra-base hit off Alvarado this year. Right-handed batters had previously been 3-for-25 with 13 strikeouts against him.
“He hammered it,” said Benintendi. “He can obviously hit a fastball. He took a good swing on a slider and that thing was 93.”
Christian Vazquez said of Chavis, “He’s got pop. He can hit. No surprise. I think he’s going to hit in the big leagues.”
It seemed like every Red Sox player in the dugout was on their feet screaming for the rookie.
“And against Alvarado, that guy is flat-out nasty,” said Rick Porcello. “We’ve been grinding so hard it didn’t matter if it was (Chavis) or anybody else. We needed that hit bad. He stepped up. That’s what we need. We need more. We need guys to step up. Huge lift for us.”
The Red Sox have been getting nothing out of second base all year. They entered Saturday ranked 30th with minus-1.0 WAR, 30th with a .129 average and 30th with a .319 OPS from the position. They’re hesitant to play Chavis there because he has only five minor leagues games of experience at the position.
Chavis made sure to put the baseball in a special place.
“I’m going to give it to my mom,” he said. “She does so much for me. Playing travel ball is expensive and takes a lot of time. My mom picked up extra jobs so she could pay for me to play travel ball. I can’t thank her enough. Her being here, you’re going to make me cry.”