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Power surge boosts Shoppach

PawSox star is catching on

Checked the International League home run leaderboard recently?

Sitting in the top spot going into last night's games was none other than Pawtucket catcher Kelly Shoppach, who already has 10. The 2001 second-round pick hit 10 homers in 2002 in Single A, 12 in 2003 in Double A, and 22 last season at Triple A.

Among his more memorable blasts: a 450-foot-plus shot in the season-opening series at Indian-apolis, and two home runs in the same inning at Buffalo last month. The last PawSox player to accomplish that feat? The estimable Dwayne Hosey in August 1996.

''It hasn't hit me as anything special," Shoppach said of his home run binge. ''I hadn't really noticed it until I looked up."

Shoppach's dinger deluge, according to Red Sox management, is yet another example of the breakthrough performance that sometimes comes in a player's second season at a new level of pro ball. Shoppach, according to Sox general manager Theo Epstein, is giving away fewer at-bats and hitting the ball to all fields (he's a righthanded batter), all while adeptly handling the pitching staff.

''I think it's experience mostly, this last year, the league," Shoppach said. ''It's just being consistent, and experience seeing pitchers."

Shoppach hit .271 at Single A and .282 at Double A before plummeting to .233 in his debut season at Pawtucket. He fanned 138 times last year, 10 shy of Phil Plantier's club record.

''I let my swing path get a little big last year," Shoppach said. ''I never could get out of the hole. My home runs went up but my doubles went down."

Shoppach, who was married in the offseason and worked out during the winter at the Sox' spring training facility, came to camp this year better prepared mentally and physically. He was sidelined for two weeks early in camp with a foot injury.

Asked to compare Shoppach's first spring training (2004) to his second, Sox catcher and captain Jason Varitek said, ''His effort was better. He didn't get to play a lot of games, but the way he went into things, he was in better shape. He'd played more recently, so he was in good baseball shape. He appeared to work a little harder. And then he got hurt."

Shoppach arrived at spring training in promising baseball shape because he'd played in the Dominican winter leagues, where he faced some pitchers with fastballs unlike anything he was used to.

''It maybe forced me to be better," Shoppach said. ''I needed to get a shorter stroke. I had an opportunity to do that for six weeks."

Once in Pawtucket, where he's generally hit fifth, ''I've been getting some good pitches to hit, and I haven't been missing many," Shoppach said. ''I don't know if my hands sped up [because of the Dominican experience], but the swing plane, the direction of my hands, making the swing faster, it's a science." Meanwhile, he's thrown out 8 of 19 would-be base stealers, earning the Sox' defensive player of the month award in April.

''It's a great honor," Shoppach said. ''As a catcher, you don't see that [award too often]."

Shoppach, a Texan who attended Baylor University, turned 25 April 29. He realizes Varitek is signed through 2008 and Doug Mirabelli through next season. He said he's not concerned with when he'll be in Boston, just about being prepared for that day, whenever it comes.

''The [PawSox] team is good, the coaching staff is good," Shoppach said. ''There's not a whole lot to complain about."

Searching for homers
Reliever Cla Meredith, optioned back to Pawtucket Wednesday, never gave up a home run in his 47-inning minor league career on his way to joining the big club. But, a little fact-finding reveals that the 21-year-old had been taken deep a handful of times in his life before Richie Sexson welcomed him to the big leagues May 8 with a grand slam. Meredith gave up two homers in three college seasons at Virginia Commonwealth University. He even gave up three in one Little League game to the same player. Paul Keyes, Meredith's college coach, called him after the Sexson homer and left a message. ''I said, 'Well, if you're going to give one up, at least you remember the first one was a granny over Pesky's Pole,' " Keyes said. Thanks, Coach . . . The Sox transferred Triple A Pawtucket shortstop Kenny Perez to Double A Portland last Friday, but that move didn't involve the promotion of Double A infield studs Hanley Ramirez or Dustin Pedroia. The PawSox have used a shortstop rotation all season. To the point of Perez's demotion he'd played 10 games at short, and Tim Hummel and Luis Figueroa had played 12 apiece . . . PawSox righthander Anastacio Martinez, who went on the disabled list May 5 with a dislocated left (non-throwing) shoulder, came off the DL last week. As of yesterday, he was 1-1 with a 22.85 ERA in six relief appearances . . . Remember Roberto Petagine? The slugging Venezuelan, signed out of Japan in the offseason, is rehabbing in Pawtucket following spring surgery on the meniscus in his left knee. Petagine checked into play last night batting .192 in 26 at-bats. All five of his hits were for extra bases (three home runs, two doubles). He'd knocked in five runs and drawn three walks . . . Shawn Wooten, the catcher/third baseman expected to help the Sox at some point this season, is batting just .212 at Pawtucket with six home runs and 24 RBIs. Wooten played 226 games in the big leagues with Anaheim and Philadelphia between 2000 and 2004, batting .272 with 18 HRs and 86 RBIs.

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