March 15, 2010

Pedroia finds a way to follow a tough act

— How do you follow up a Rookie of the Year season? You can't defend the title, so you'd better put up some pretty good numbers if you don't want people talking about your sophomore slump.

No worry of that happening with Boston's Dustin Pedroia.

A year ago, his .317 batting average was the best by an American League rookie second baseman. Ever. Pretty tough act to follow, but Pedroia has been better in 2008. He started the final month of this season hitting .326. No one in the AL had a higher batting average.

He wrapped up his August to remember with a series Sox fans won't soon forget. Pedroia went 9 for 12 against the White Sox at Fenway Park last weekend, at one point reaching base safely in 11 consecutive plate appearances.

His 4-for-4 effort Friday earned the 160-pound Pedroia his first career start as a cleanup hitter Saturday. His 4-for-4 effort that night earned him another start there on Sunday.

That, and Kevin Youkilis was home fighting flu-like symptoms.

''I got to the (ballpark) and found out that Youk was sick,'' said Pedroia after Saturday night's win. ''I told David (Ortiz) he better stop (complaining) about getting pitches to hit, because he got a lot (Saturday night).''

Pedroia insisted -- rather quickly -- he was just joking that batting behind Ortiz was giving Big Papi better pitches to hit. But the brashness of the quote was typical of Pedroia.

He has had to overcome doubters throughout his career. At 5-foot-7, he's had people telling him he's too small since Little League. Chicago Manager Ozzie Guillen called him a jockey.

Everyone else at Fenway last weekend was calling Pedroia MVP. The chants started on Friday and have yet to subside.

''I don't care,'' Pedroia said. ''That's great for the fans to think that, but I just try to come out and play hard every day. Hopefully we can win. That's all I care about.''

That's something the Red Sox have been doing regularly. They began August with a 61-48 record and a half-game lead over Minnesota in the wild-card race. They started September at 79-57 and added two games to that lead.

Now they have the most favorable schedule of any of the contenders in the AL East or wild-card race. They have 17 home games in September compared to nine for the Rays and Yankees. The Twins have 12 home games, the White Sox 13.

More and more, it's looking like Minnesota and Chicago will battle for the AL Central title while the Sox have a real chance to pull away as the wild card.

The Red Sox hit .299 in August, the second-best average in the league. They've gotten offensive contributions from a lot of hitters, none more consistently than Pedroia. He won't remain in the cleanup spot, but he'll remain a major concern for opposing pitchers.

How do you follow up a Rookie of the Year season? An MVP season works just fine.

Tom Caron is the studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.

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