Red Sox: Return of Kike Hernandez solidifies lineup and outfield

BOSTON, MA - JULY 29: Enrique Hernandez #5 of the Boston Red Sox runs out a hit against the Toronto Blue Jays during the first inning at Fenway Park on July 29, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - JULY 29: Enrique Hernandez #5 of the Boston Red Sox runs out a hit against the Toronto Blue Jays during the first inning at Fenway Park on July 29, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images) /
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The Boston Red Sox get a boost with the return of Kike Hernandez

The roster have been ravaged by COVID-19 cases in recent weeks but the Boston Red Sox get one key member back tonight. Enrique Hernandez has cleared protocols and has been activated in time for Tuesday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays. He will reclaim his spot at the top of the lineup and patrol center field in his return.

Hernandez hasn’t played since August 26 against the Minnesota Twins. The Red Sox cycled through various replacements in the leadoff role during his absence with mixed results. While Kyle Schwarber has proven himself to be a dangerous leadoff hitter, the team prefers to give him more opportunities for his powerful bat to hit with runners on base.

He got off to a slow start this season that led to the Red Sox briefly dropping him in the order but since reclaiming the leadoff role, Hernandez has been outstanding. His .401 on-base percentage since the All-Star break ranks third in the American League while his .536 slugging percentage is 15th in the second half.

Boston’s lineup is undoubtedly better with Kike at the top, allowing the star talent to slot into their roles behind him.

His return is arguably more important to the team’s defense. According to The Boston Globe’s Alex Speier, manager Alex Cora stated that “Kike is going to play a lot of centerfield.” He’s still going to see some time at second base but Cora believes that the outfield trio of Kike plus Alex Verdugo and Hunter Renfroe on the corners is a “special unit.”

Defense has been a problem of late, with Monday’s sloppy performance against the Rays standing as the latest atrocious example. Chris Sale was charged with four unearned runs when Verdugo lost a routine fly ball in the sun with the bases loaded. A throwing error by second baseman Taylor Motter, who was designated for assignment when Hernandez was activated today, allowed Nelson Cruz to score on that same play after he cleared the bases.

Verdugo has played well at both corner spots but he’s not a center fielder. He’s played it out of necessity but the defensive alignment is much better with Kike in the middle.

Improving the outfield defense makes it a bit more challenging to fit Schwarber in the lineup. He’s going to start seeing more time at first base, a position he’s rarely been tested at since joining the Red Sox. Cora indicated that most of his time at first base will be against right-handed pitchers while Bobby Dalbec will be in the lineup mostly against lefties. Dalbec has been one of the team’s hottest hitters this month but the larger sample still shows he’s far better against southpaws.

Cora added that Verdugo will sit against some lefties, allowing Schwarber to take his spot in left field on those occasions. Verdugo came through with a clutch walk-off hit against a lefty last weekend but he’s still struggled against them this season, batting .211 with a .526 OPS.

The Red Sox are getting healthier, allowing them to be more flexible with their roster. Hernandez plays a key role at the top of the lineup and on the field so his return will help solidify both.

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