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Closing Time: Mookie Betts continues to separate himself from pack, leads Red Sox to rout of Rays

08.29.14 at 10:45 pm ET
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Mookie Betts celebrates his second-inning grand slam, Friday night. (Getty Images)

Mookie Betts celebrates his second-inning grand slam in Friday night’s win over the Rays. (Getty Images)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Mookie Betts is the one guy who is remaining true to the script.

With the player many perceive as the starting center fielder for the 2015 Red Sox — Rusney Castillo — ready to make his professional debut a couple of hours away in Fort Myers, Sunday, the guy who is making a pretty powerful impression at the position continued pushing his stock upward Friday night.

Betts is one of the few highly touted Sox youngsters to actually offer the kind of standout performances once expected of Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley, Will Middlebrooks and a cavalcade of young pitchers. The 21-year-old’s latest separator? A second-inning grand slam, making the outfielder the youngest Red Sox player to go deep with the bases loaded since a 20-year-old Tony Congliaro on Aug. 24, 1965.

(It was Betts’ first grand slam as a professional. “I can’t tell you the last time I hit a grand slam, going back to high school,” he said. “I honestly don’t remember hitting one in high school, either. Just to hit one is pretty enjoyable.”)

Just for good measure, Betts continued his ascension as a legitimate big league outfield by robbing Kevin Kiermaier of extra bases in the fifth inning with a leaping catch just before the center field wall.

The grand slam was the signature blow for the Red Sox in their 8-4 win over the Rays. It also played a key role in a pair of innings in which the visitors batted around  the order in the first two frames of a game for the first time since Aug. 14, 1962.

Coming into the series opener, Betts’ numbers since his most recent call-up weren’t electric, totaling a .242 batting average, .390 on-base percentage and .784 OPS. But what offered encouragement even before the grand slam was how his approach had remained consistent from when he tore through the minors.

Betts has been successful in all three of his stolen base attempts, while drawing two more walks than strikeouts (8-6). He has also shown an ability to make adjustments, going 4-for-10 with a walk when facing a pitcher for a third time in any one game.

“You know he generates quite a bit of bat speed so it’s not so much the size that’s the predictor of power but in a short period of time in his pro career he’s … I think the last two years, he’s led the organization in extra base hits or slugging percentage,” said Red Sox manager John Farrell. “It is a little surprising when you see the stature of him. When you boil it down to the bat speed, it’s very good.”

“I kind of knew I had the ability to do it,” said Betts in regards to his extra-base power. “I don’t think anybody else believed in me, but I believed in myself to do it. It was just a matter of learning the pitches to swing at and grooving my swing to where when I get those pitches, I’m able to do something with it.”

If one Red Sox youngster was to be identified as giving off the impression of a viable major leaguer for ’15, it’s Betts.

Also of note …

— Daniel Nava stole third with the Red Sox carrying an 8-3 lead in the seventh inning. It was the same exact score (with the Rays winning) and inning Yunel Escobar executed such a steal on May 25, leading to a bench-clearing fracas between the teams.

— Starter Anthony Ranaudo was solid in his third major league start, allowing three runs on five hits, striking out four and walking three in six innings. He finished throwing 99 pitches. In 18 big league innings, the righty has given up nine runs, improving to 3-0.

“He’s done a very good job of balancing the temporary status of things and we’re hopeful and likely remains with us as we go forward,” Farrell said. “His mound presence and his poise is one thing that continues to shine through in the three outings he’s made for us.”

— Yoenis Cespedes had two more RBIs (along with a pair of hits) to give him 22 in 25 games with the Red Sox. Cespedes also made another underhand throw from the warning track, launching it all the way to second base after catching an Evan Longoria line-out in the sixth inning.

“I’ve been doing that for years,” he said of the unique throw. “I did at times last year, but really started messing around with it more this year. It’s just something fun to do. It’s a way to have fun out there.

“I just do it when it comes to me. I don’t plan it. When I was back in Oakland there would be times I would do it seven or eight times a game.”

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