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Youkilis stars in spot start

Terry Francona insists Kevin Youkilis probably will get better at first base with a little more work.

But yesterday, in just his second start at the position for the third baseman by trade, Youkilis, subbing for the injured Kevin Millar (bruised foot), looked as smooth as any Sox player there since Doug Mientkiewicz.

Youkilis made a sparkling diving stab of Adam LaRoche's shot down the line, which he converted into an unassisted out, in the ninth inning of yesterday's 5-2 win over the Braves. The play might have allowed Matt Clement to get a complete game; Clement had allowed a leadoff single to Pete Orr, and with one out, LaRoche's hard-hit ball might have gone for extra bases.

''I feel pretty comfortable down there," Youkilis said. ''Third is a little bit harder because you have to throw the ball more, but the one thing I'm still not completely comfortable with is the throw to second base [from first base], which is something I need to keep working on."

At the plate, Youkilis drove in Boston's first run off Atlanta starter John Smoltz with a single to left in the fifth inning. The hit came after Youkilis ran the count to 2-2 and fouled off three balls.

''It's always great to get a hit like that," said Youkilis. ''It was huge at the time because sometimes you just need a couple of hits [strung together] to get everyone going."

Youkilis, who is 12 for 34 and has a hit in nine of his 10 games, likely will play first for most of today's Hall of Fame game in Cooperstown, N.Y., as he continues to find a niche for himself on the roster.

The Sox have first basemen nearly ready to come back to the big leagues, including John Olerud and Roberto Petagine. They recently sent Olerud to Pawtucket after he tore up extended spring training, where he ripped eight hits in his first 10 at-bats.

Millar, who fouled a ball off his left foot Saturday night, had X-rays yesterday, which were negative, and he said he planned on playing tomorrow night in Toronto.

He was given a boot to wear, but said, ''You're not going to see me wear that boot."

Millar joked about missing yesterday's game, ''I had a bruised Smoltz bone," a reference to the veteran Braves hurler.

All not on board

Francona said not everyone will make the trip to Cooperstown for the exhibition vs. the Tigers, weather permitting. Francona said lefthanded reliever Alan Embree has wisdom teeth that might need to be pulled. He also said he'll excuse lefthanded reliever John Halama to tend to a ''personal matter." Francona said Curt Schilling will be excused to take part in a conference call on the steroids committee he's a part of . . . Schilling continued his throwing program, playing long-toss in the outfield for about 15 minutes. Francona said Schilling told him he's encouraged with his progress. ''Whenever you see Curt a little more talkative, it means he's feeling a little better," Francona said . . . Francona won't play Jason Varitek, Trot Nixon, or Millar today . . . Millar was one of three Sox players (along with David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez) who was slated to take part in a home run hitting contest in Cooperstown.

Hitting it off

Newly appointed video/hitting guru Mike Barnett was already working, watching Sox hitters in the batting cage before the game. Francona wanted to be clear Barnett is in no way infringing on hitting coach Ron Jackson's territory. Barnett was replaced as Toronto's hitting coach April 24 by first base coach Mickey Brantley. Francona reminisced about Barnett's work with basketball star Michael Jordan when the three of them were in Birmingham, Ala., with the White Sox' Double A affiliate. ''Mike was the guy that Michael confided in the most," Francona recalled. ''He helped him out a lot." Barnett's first road trip with the Sox will be to Toronto tomorrow . . . Francona is expected to hear soon from the American League concerning protocol for managing the All-Star team July 12 in Detroit. Francona said he's looking forward to the task but that he hasn't given much thought to it because of the demands of his current job. ''I expect they'll call me soon and walk me through it," he said . . . Rule 5 draftee Adam Stern, who was transferred from the 15-day to the 60-day disabled list (fractured thumb) Monday, is scheduled to join Pawtucket Wednesday.

An old story

Francona on Atlanta's 46-year-old Julio Franco. ''I played with him in 1988 [in Cleveland] and he was old then," said the 46-year-old Francona. ''But he was always into diet and nutrition long before anyone else got into it. He's taken great care of himself." . . . Bronson Arroyo's six-game suspension will end in time for him to make his next start Wednesday. He has kept sharp with a couple of side sessions . . . Asked if he cringes when he sees Nixon diving for balls considering his somewhat fragile state (he has a leg injury), Francona said, ''When he succeeds, he plays like a football player. That's the way he plays. I don't think you could ever tell Trot to slow down." . . . Pretty Neat Dept: ''4 ORR" is what the scoreboard read when Orr, the Braves left fielder from Richmond Hills, Ontario, came up four times yesterday. Orr's middle name: Gordon, the same as Bobby Orr, but that's coincidence more than design even though Pete Orr's father was a huge fan of the Bruins legend growing up. There had been the possibility of a Pete Orr-Bobby Orr meeting this weekend, but the parties weren't able to get together.

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