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Loud and clear

Bellhorn connects with quiet approach

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The road to perdition that night began as grass, then turned to a mixture of dirt and clay. As Mark Bellhorn walked from home plate to the Red Sox dugout late in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series last October, having struck out for the fourth time in four at-bats, the fans' criticism and anger flowed. His average had reached a stultifying .087 (2 for 23) in the playoffs.

He'll never forget, he said, one voice amid the masses.

"Some guy said, `Take yourself out of the lineup,' " Bellhorn said this week. "I'll always remember that."

It was a point that most fans and media in Boston thought or voiced that week. About that time, Terry Francona pulled Bellhorn aside. The Sox manager, sensing his second baseman had the self-confidence of Eeyore, passed along a simple, reassuring message.

"I said, `Bell, you're going to play,' " Francona relayed yesterday. " `The only thing I might do is move you out of the two-hole. You're going to play. So go play good.'

"He goes, `OK.' "

A painfully quiet individual, that response is the essence of Bellhorn. Why express in more words what can be conveyed with one? Or, what can be conveyed with one swing of the bat?

You know the tale of the tape. A three-run blast in a 4-2 Game 6 win at Yankee Stadium. A solo homer to lead off the eighth inning of Game 7 against Tom Gordon. And that two-run, game-winning drive in Game 1 of the World Series that rattled the miked-up Pesky's Pole.

Numerous fans approached Bellhorn during the offseason to ask: "Was it really that loud on the field?"

The answer was no. But on televisions across New England, that blast resonated in the night. Bellhorn, who acknowledges to being the softest-spoken member of the Sox, had chirped up in his own way.

"He's quiet," said Johnny Damon. "He's a gentleman. The rest of us aren't."

Little seems to have changed this spring about Bellhorn. He still doesn't say boo, though Kevin Millar, who brought Manny Ramirez out of his shell last season, is working to do the same with the placid Bellhorn.

"Millar wants me to be a little louder," Bellhorn said. "I'm going to be a little tougher [than Manny]."

Perhaps job security will ease his mind. The starting second base job is his, and he'll make $2.75 million this season. Last year, he made $490,000 and came to camp as Pokey Reese's backup.

"That was a stimulant," Bellhorn, 30, said of having to compete for a job. "I need to find something else that drives me. Maybe trying to be one of the better guys in the league at the position."

That said, replicating 2004 would be impressive enough. His on-again, off-again seasons have befuddled even Bellhorn himself. He hit one home run in 2001 (in 38 games), 27 in 2002 (146 games), two in 2003 (99 games), then 17 last year (138 games).

Last season, he also established career highs in batting average (.264), RBIs (82), doubles (37), runs (93), and walks (88). He seems poised to put together productive back-to-back seasons.

In the past, he said, he was in unsettled situations. He played for the A's in 2001, Cubs in 2002, and split 2003 between Chicago and Colorado.

"I probably tried to do too much," he said. "I really don't know the reason, it's just one of the freaky things. I hit both those home runs in Chicago [in 2003] and from June on I didn't play every day."

Bellhorn said he doesn't intend to alter his approach too much this year, even though he led the American League in strikeouts last season with 177, a team record. But, to talk about reducing whiffs is a tired anthem, he said.

"It's been that for the last nine years," said Bellhorn, who managed a .373 on-base percentage despite the strikeouts. "I do want to cut down. I don't want to go down 50 strikeouts but have the other numbers go down, too. A lot of guys with a lot of walks have a lot of strikeouts because you've got to get deep in counts, 3-1, 3-2, as opposed to being like Nomar."

That reference was to Nomar Garciaparra's notorious first-pitch swings. Conversely, Bellhorn's willingness to go deep in counts, wear down pitchers, and compile walks gave Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz the chance to drive in as many runs as they did.

"I think he was one of the most underrated people in the league," Damon said. "He strikes out a lot, but he prolonged innings. He walked a lot. That two-spot is underrated."

It's possible that Bellhorn retains that No. 2 spot, though Edgar Renteria could supplant him.

"Bellhorn, I understand he's not the prototype No. 2 hitter, but he did a great job getting on base," Francona said. "So there's times when Bellhorn can hit second, there's times he'll hit ninth.

"He's like the easiest guy. You walk up every day, say, `How's everything going?' He says, `Good, Skip.' And you just keep on going."

Last October, Francona couldn't just keep on going. He had to address Bellhorn's psyche. Today, Bellhorn said, he's better equipped to handle future struggles, especially in the postseason.

"You never want to get booed," he said. "I guess it did hurt. In a way, I understand where they were coming from. Maybe I was thinking negative, not that I couldn't do it. I was trying too hard to prove them wrong.

"My first playoffs, you tend to want to do too much. You want to contribute for the team. You're 0 for 20 and you're just pressing. But you get one broken-bat hit and your confidence is back again. I hit that home run in Game 6, and it was OK from there."

The most rewarding of the three home runs?

"The one in Fenway was the most special," he said. "To do it at Fenway, given the week before . . ."

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