Now batting cleanup, Dustin Pedroia. The notion of the 160-pound second baseman occupying the spot usually designated for a team's top power hitter seemed like a punchline. The Red Sox were certainly happy to treat it like one.
“I'll never hear the end of it from Pedroia or (David) Ortiz,” said Sox manager Terry Francona. “Pedroia said its long overdue and Ortiz said he's retiring.”
Such smirks reflect the revered status that Pedroia enjoys within the Sox clubhouse. Teammates constantly marvel at his all-around game, and had yet another moment to reflect on his talents after he went 4-for-4 in Boston's 8-2 win over the White Sox last night.
Yet even the team that made the second baseman its top pick in the 2004 draft—in spite of skepticism about Pedroia's talent from other teams—did not foresee what would transpire in his second full year in the majors.
With his second straight four-hit game yesterday, Pedroia is now hitting .327, a mark that would be the best ever by a Sox second baseman and an improvement of his .317 batting average of a year ago.
But with more than a month left in the season, he has already eclipsed his doubles (42 to 39) and home run (15 to 8) totals of a year ago. With such totals, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen pointed out, Pedroia was the logical man to offer lineup protection to Ortiz.
“I told David he better stop bitching about not getting pitches to hit,” said Pedroia. “He got a lot tonight.”
Pedroia's performance is no laughing matter. A case can be made that Pedroia is producing one of the greatest all-around seasons by a second baseman. Assuming that he steals one more base, Pedroia will become just the 14th second baseman since 1901 to hit at least .300, launch 15 homers, swipe 15 bags and score 100 runs.
Such a feat would put him in the company of a short-list of second basemen highlighted by Hall of Famers Rogers Hornsby, Charlie Gehringer, Ryne Sandberg, Jackie Robinson, Joe Morgan and future Hall of Famer Craig Biggio. Even the Sox did not forecast this sort of production, particularly the power.
“It's not surprising us that he's hitting .300. We just knew he could hit,” said Sox amateur scouting director Jason McLeod. “I did think he could hit 10 (homers), just because he swings so hard and makes contact. I didn't think he could hit 15. It's incredible.”
Pedroia's first career grand slam on Wednesday was particularly startling. He slammed a belt-high, 91-mph fastball into the netting beyond Yankee Stadium's wall in left-center, a blast that traveled over 390 feet.
Some prototypical right-handed sluggers have a difficult time clearing that nether region of the Bronx. (David Eckstein, the player to whom Pedroia was once misleadingly compared, has never homered in Yankee Stadium.) That Pedroia proved capable of doing so left members of the organization in awe.
“He's amazing,” said Sox D.H. David Ortiz. “Having a little guy like Pedroia swinging the bat like that, putting every single pound right behind the ball, that's amazing.”
“He's a freak. He's a freak,” said Sox advance scout Todd Claus, who managed Pedroia in Double-A Portland in 2005. “Who else that looks like him does what he does? He's the only one.”
The development seems all the more remarkable given that Pedroia underwent surgery over the offseason to remove a fractured hamate in his left hand. Wrist surgeries have been known to have power-sapping effects, particularly since they can impair a player's ability to follow his normal strength and conditioning program.
But if Pedroia heard suggestions that the procedure might limit his production, he summarily dismissed them.
“That's probably an excuse,” said Pedroia. “If I don't play good, it's my fault.”
Within four days of the surgery, Pedroia had already resumed lifting with his lower legs. He was able to return to Athletes Performance Institute in Tempe, Ariz., and follow a full offseason program.
Pedroia first went to API while he was in college at Arizona State University. ASU baseball coach Pat Murphy suggested that his shortstop should add a bit of muscle mass to his skinny frame.
Pedroia has stayed with it, and also improved his diet and nutrition after the Sox suggested that he do so when he reported to spring training in 2006. The 25-year-old's commitment to his fitness has certainly aided his surprising boost in power, but Pedroia believes that his maturation as a baseball player has been more central in his increased home run totals.
“I'm just getting better,” said Pedroia. “I work hard enough. As I keep playing, I'm going to continue to get better.”
The notion is an interesting one to contemplate, given Pedroia's current standing in the game. The starting second baseman for the American League All-Star team is already distinguishing himself as a player.
On Friday, White Sox manager Guillen said that he worried more about Pedroia than Ortiz. Yesterday, the Chicago skipper added to the lauds.
“He's a bad (expletive). He's a bad (expletive),” said Guillen. “I think Pedroia is the heart of the ballclub right now. A lot of people talked about Manny (Ramirez) leaving. I wish Pedroia was the one that was leaving. This kid can beat you so many different ways: homeruns, doubles, make the plays, steal a base, bunt. He can do a lot of great things.”
Thanks to hand-eye coordination that McLeod describes as the best he's ever seen in a hitter, Pedroia has a freakish ability to square the ball while swinging with maximum force. The result is an ability to drive the ball without swinging and missing.
As a rookie, he had 48 extra-base hits and 42 strikeouts. This year, he has 59 extra-base knocks and just 47 punchouts. Ortiz, who has gone deep 17 times this year, marveled that Pedroia is just two homers shy of his output. Such outcomes have forced Pedroia's former critics to concede a misjudgment.
“There was a scout the other day in Baltimore, a guy who’s been doing it for a long time and saw him play in Triple-A, and had him in at best as a major-league backup who could not play shortstop. He had him as a utility guy,” said Claus. “When I first saw him, I thought that. I'm sure a lot of people thought that. He really grows on you. He's easy to grow on you.”
His game, once scrutinized for apparent weaknesses, is instead being heralded for its completeness. As a result, a player whose most notable trait was once his lack of size is now assuming an enormous presence in the Red Sox effort to defend their title.
Alex Speier is a Senior Writer for WEEI.com.