ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- He is the constant. When he does not feel good, he contributes. When no one else is hitting, he often is the one who seems intent on singlehandedly pulling the team out of its adversity. If there is a player who can be described as doing something every day to help his team win, he is it.
Dustin Pedroia is the constant, the steady beat of a winning team. He is the metro(g)nome.
Naturally, it was Pedroia who helped to pound open the floodgates for the Red Sox in their 9-2 victory Wednesday night against the Rays. With the team ensnared in a 5-for-40 slump with runners in scoring position, he stepped to the plate with runners on first and second and one out in the bottom of the third.
Though he fell behind 0-2 to David Price, Pedroia stayed on a backdoor cutter away and lined it to right field for an RBI single. He set the tone, and the Sox marched in step behind him, with the next three hitters all collecting hits and, finally, Stephen Drew providing the exclamation point with his grand slam.
That it was Pedroia who led the way was no surprise to his clubhouse.
"He just never gives an at-bat away," marveled manager John Farrell. "He finds a way to get the bat on the ball, and if it's a slow roller, he's got enough speed where he can beat out an infield base hit. If they make mistakes on the inner part of the plate, he can do a number of things based on the location of the pitch.
"What he does well as we saw on that RBI situation, he's down in the count, he battles to stay alive and he gets a pitch that's up enough where he can handle it to the opposite field. He's fun to watch, as we've known for a number of years."
Will Middlebrooks has been privy to the phenomenon for less time. He's been playing with Pedroia for just over a year. Yet the reality has become abundantly clear in that span.
Pedroia will contribute on a daily basis. It is merely a question of how. It is telling that, in the Sox' recent skid, Pedroia has been the one player who still managed to mount a steady assault on opposing pitchers, the one who now has a seven-game hitting streak that includes multiple knocks in six of those contests and a robust .517 average and .563 OBP; he matched a career-high with five straight multiple-hit contests through Sunday.
No one else was hitting. He did. No surprise.
"Pedey's the leader on this team and he helps take us out of any hole we're in, it seems like," Middlebrooks said. "As we all know, he's very vocal, but on the field, it's more about his actions. He plays the game hard. He plays it the right way. You never see him go wrong in a situation. If he fails, he's always trying to do the right thing. That comes out in the little things. Maybe we're down two runs, nobody on, he comes up, 2-0, he takes. It's little things like that and you learn from that as a young player -- the little things that you can really learn from as a young player, and that makes people respect him."
Pedroia now is hitting .340 with a .428 OBP, marks that lead the Sox and rank fifth in the American League. He has achieved those numbers in spite of the fact that he played hurt for most of the first month of the season.
An ill-advised head-first dive into first base on Opening Day -- in the late innings of a blowout win over the Yankees, no less -- did violence to his right thumb. As a result, his swing was off. He couldn't drive the ball on a consistent basis, lacked extra-base thump. Yet he hit .337 with a .444 OBP in the season's first month.
"He had that thumb thing early on and he played through it. I'm not going to say it wasn't affecting his hitting, but he figured out a way to deal with it and put together some great at-bats. The better it felt, the more balls have been driven," hitting coach Greg Colbrunn said. "He doesn't give away at-bats. He gets up there and grinds, whether he's seeing the ball real great or he's not seeing it. He goes up there and doesn't give away at-bats. That's a testament to the type of player he is."
Pedroia is terse, unrevealing when it comes to the subject of his injuries. He rarely acknowledges being wounded, demands of himself that he performs at an elite level regardless of his physical state of being.
"I'm fine. I'm OK, man. ... Haven't really thought about it," the second baseman suggested, and then smirked. "I hit .330 in April, so I guess I got hits."
It's not supposed to be like that, not supposed to be that easy. When players don't feel good, it is supposed to show in their diminished production.
In a sense, perhaps it did during the season's early paces. After all, he has just 11 extra-base hits so far (one homer, 10 doubles). But to focus on his power (or lack thereof) to date this year seems an unnecessary quibble.
When other players slump, or when their hands betray them, the result often is horrific stretches in which first base might as well be a foreign country for which the hitter cannot acquire a visa. In the case of Pedroia, the byproduct is a drumbeat of singles and walks, an ability to put up on-base numbers that are the envy of other healthy players.
Even so, there is a tell when Pedroia feels physically out of sorts. His contact rate diminishes. But rather than suffering the fate of other players, who see their strikeout rates leap when they are off, Pedroia adapts in a fashion that permits his walk and strikeout rates to climb in more or less equal measure.
Hence, this season, the evidence of his early-season physical woes exists in the fact that Pedroia has struck out 22 times this year -- in 12.2 percent of plate appearances, a mark that would be a career-high for a full year (his career average is a strikeout in 8.8 percent of his trips to the plate -- a strikingly low rate). But he's enjoyed a corresponding increase in walks, having worked four balls 24 times this year -- in 13.3 percent of his plate appearances, a mark that also would represent a career best.
"I feel like he has a good at-bat every at-bat. When he's not feeling good, he walks more. When he feels good, he's swinging at balls but hitting them in the gap," observed Middlebrooks. "Guys don't like throwing him pitches down the middle because he waffles them. So they'll nibble and he waffles that, too. It's unreal. When he's not feeling good, he's taking more pitches because he knows he's not feeling good, and he has such a good eye that those pitches that he normally hits when he's feeling good that are off the plate, he's taking them and walking more. So he's always putting together good at-bats and just plays the game the right way, and it's fun to watch."
He knows his swing so well that he can recalibrate when he does not feel good. Sometimes, that effort can take a while -- as was the case in 2012, when an array of hand injuries left him, at times, searching for weeks for the stroke that would allow his hand-eye coordination to play. But ultimately, the Sox realize, he figures out a way.
Pedroia insists that he does not spend too much time analyzing his swing. He lives by feel, adapts by instinct in the batter's box, guided by a Zen-like simplicity toward his goals.
"I just go play. I've been playing baseball my whole life. That's basically it. I'm trying to win. If they throw it away, try to hit it to right. If they throw it in, pull it. If you start complicating things, that's when a lot of things creep into your mind, rather than just trying to see the ball," Pedroia said. "I'm just trying to get on -- that's my job. Get on base, find a way to create a run. Walking, passing it to the next guy, is a big part. If they don't throw you anything to hit, don't swing at it."
The philosophy seems so simple, so straightforward. And it is.
But the implementation of it is not -- or at least it's not supposed to be, which is part of the reason why Pedroia is the source of constant amazement by his teammates, just as his style of play is a steadying hand to guide a team through both its proverbial peaks (April) and valleys (the more recent run).
That ability is a byproduct of a number of physical traits -- foremost, the exceptional hand-eye coordination and the endless hours spent on a baseball field since his childhood that permit him an uncanny ability to attack a baseball in innovative fashion.
"Pedey doesn't really have mechanics," Middlebrooks said. "Watch his swings -- his last at-bat [on Wednesday, a well-struck flyout to center], that ball was two inches off the ground and he was almost in a full split. He's just, he's athletic enough, and his hand-eye coordination is unbelievable. He doesn't really need mechanics."
One might think that such a description would make Pedroia the bane of his hitting coach's lot. How do you offer advice to a player whose swing represents an act of defiance to textbook instruction?
But rather than resentment, Pedroia inspires near awe. At a certain point -- in a season, in a career -- the nature of his steady contributions on and off the field elicit not just deference but a sort of reverence.
"It's all about winning, as soon as he walks into the clubhouse. It's probably 24 hours a day," Colbrunn said. "He brings it every day. It's 24-7 baseball. He wants to win every day. He doesn't want to talk about anything but winning ballgames, which is tremendous."
In speech and in deed, Pedroia does what he can to secure such an outcome day-in, day-out, as predictably as the rise and setting of the sun. He is the metrognome.