Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Pedroia Short in Size, Long in Talent

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- If you want to get Dustin Pedroia to roll his eyes, just ask him about his big swing. The diminutive second baseman has been hearing about it for too long. He knows that the "experts" out there think that a little guy should have a shorter swing.
Pedroia unloads on that theory much like a fastball over the heart of the plate.

"I've been successful my whole life with that swing," said Pedroia. "I've hit .300 every single year I've played baseball. Why change? You know what I mean? My swing is short to the ball. It doesn't matter what the swing is through the zone, but if it's short and quick to the ball, I'm going to hit the barrel a lot."

And Pedroia, with that accentuated uppercut, has hit the barrel enough to rise through the Minor League ranks faster than any Red Sox position player in recent memory.

The 65th overall pick in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft will be the Opening Day second baseman for the 2007 Red Sox.

That is no small feat. The last time the Red Sox started a rookie on an everyday basis was 2001, when third baseman Shea Hillenbrand came out of nowhere during Spring Training.

This time, it is different. Pedroia did not come to camp needing to win the job. The Red Sox, who promoted the diminutive second baseman last August, plotted their offseason plans with the idea that Pedroia was going to be the mainstay. That is why Mark Loretta was not re-signed, even though he could have been had for a modest salary.

"[Pedroia] does everything he's supposed to," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "He understands situations on the field. Just because he's young, you don't have to explain to him three times what you're doing or what to expect. He gets it pretty quick. That's part of what makes him good."

Another thing that has made Pedroia good is the useful chip that he carries on his shoulder. He uses it for motivation and it has gotten him this far. Perhaps that's why he is keeping No. 64 -- a number typically used for September callups -- on his back for now.

At every turn, there have been those who have looked at him and laughed. Pedroia merely takes the high road publicly and snarls inside.

"It hasn't been just here, I got it in college and high school," Pedroia said. "When I committed to Arizona State, everyone was laughing at me, 'You're not going to play there.' You just have to use it as motivation. I think it's great. There's always people that are definitely 100 percent behind you and believe in you, so it makes it a lot more special when you prove people wrong."

It is fortunate for Pedroia that some of the people who believe in him so much are the ones who have the most control over his fate.

General manager Theo Epstein could have gone after a second baseman over the winter. He didn't. Francona could have put the microscope on Pedroia this spring. He hasn't.

"I think if you'd ask him, he knows we have confidence in him as a player," said Francona.

The only thing the Red Sox asked Pedroia to do over the winter was get in better shape. He got a little pudgy last year, partly due to some misguided training and also from a shoulder injury that derailed him early in the year. All Pedroia did was come to camp looking like a different person. He lost nearly 30 pounds.

"I just tried to get a lot faster and quicker," said Pedroia. "It's definitely helped out with my bat speed and things like that, to where I can handle Major League pitching. Last year, I got run down at the end of the year. I wanted to make sure that didn't happen this year, so I changed some things in the offseason."

Calorie counting became a way of life, and the results are obvious upon first glance. The loss in weight once again has Pedroia resembling another little guy who used to wear the same uniform, albeit at the Minor League level.

When the Red Sox were controlled by other decision-makers, a young man named David Eckstein was put on waivers and claimed by the Angels on Aug. 16, 2000.

All Eckstein has done since then is help two teams win a World Series, most recently the 2006 Cardinals.

"He's proved people wrong every day, too," said Pedroia. "People have questioned him from the start. I know he came up with the Red Sox. I'm sure he's had to deal with some things, but he's always proved everybody wrong and everybody sits back and looks at him and he has a couple of rings. That's definitely an accomplishment."

There's no question that Pedroia struggled at the plate (.191, two homers, seven RBIs in 89 at-bats) after his recall to Boston on Aug. 22. But that learning curve couldn't have come at a better time. The Red Sox were struggling as a team and didn't have much hope of making the postseason, so it gave Pedroia time to take his lumps at a time it wasn't detrimental in the big picture.

He hopes that things will be different from the start this year.

"It's always good to go through a struggle and kind of come out of it," said Pedroia. "I started like 4-for-40 and you can go two ways. You can either go 4-for-50 or maybe 8-for-50. I definitely came out of it. I started hitting the ball well, calming down, it showed me a lot because I've never been through something like that."

His teammates got a chance to observe the way he handled his initiation, and there's confidence in the clubhouse that the kid is going to do fine.

"I like his approach," said third baseman Mike Lowell. "He's aggressive. I think he brings a little fiery attitude and he's got a little bit of pop. He can sneak up on you and get a hold of one. He's very capable defensively. I think he's going to do a good job for us, and the fact that you can hit him ninth, you don't have to shove him into a spot where he feels like he has to get on base. I think that's a good atmosphere for him to do well in."

Instead of being giddy or wide-eyed about his opportunity, Pedroia is taking the all-business approach.

"I work hard," Pedroia said. "I've had to work for everything I have. It's been great getting to the big leagues within a couple of years of when I signed. It's just an accomplishment, but I'm not happy with that, and I want to stay here for a long time."

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