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Stern getting up to speed again

TORONTO -- When spring training was just unfolding -- March 3 and 4, to be exact -- Rule 5 outfielder Adam Stern reached base on consecutive days in a difficult to duplicate manner.

Against Minnesota, and then Northeastern University, his fifth-inning at-bats read like this: Stern singled to second base.

Yup, on both occasions, the 5-foot-11-inch, 180-pound outfielder grounded to second yet beat the throw. In the second instance, the Sox clocked the 25-year-old lefthanded hitter at 4.09 seconds down the line. Generally, 3.9 seconds is about the quickest a lefthanded batter can go home to first.

''That's pretty good, considering it's my first time airing it out at game speed," the Canadian-born Stern said that day.

That was a humble way of saying he's capable of going box to bag faster, and intended to. But that was about the last anyone heard from Stern. He jammed his right thumb the next night and was expected to miss a few days until he learned that he'd sprained a ligament. He missed the rest of spring training, began the season on the 15-day disabled list, and recently was shifted to the 60-day DL.

But last night Stern joined the Pawtucket Red Sox in Durham, N.C., for the beginning of a rehabilitation stint, which, by rule, can be no longer than 20 days. Meanwhile, he's eligible to come off the DL June 2.

''I feel great," Stern said by phone following last night's game, in which he went 0 for 3 with a walk and a stolen base. ''It was good to finally get out of [Fort Myers, Fla.]. People came and went and I was a fixture. Rehabbing is not fun. I totally do not recommend it to anybody."

Stern said he's been told he'll start three of the four games of this series in center field and one in either left or right. He's not sure, he said, just how long his rehab stint will last.

''I don't know if it's a 20-day rehab or not," he said. ''I've heard 10 and I've heard 20."

Stern was injured diving headfirst attempting to swipe a base in Sarasota, Fla., March 5. Last night, he said, he went into second with his feet first.

''I banged that tactic from my repertoire," he said. ''That is now gone."

Plucked from the Braves organization in the Rule 5 draft in December, Stern must either be kept on the major league roster all season or be offered back to the Braves for $25,000. Last season, the Sox managed to retain Rule 5 lefty Lenny DiNardo for the year.

Stern, who throws righthanded, hit .322 last season with 8 home runs, 47 RBIs, 27 stolen bases, and 64 runs in just 394 at-bats at Double A Greenville. Summoned to Triple A Richmond for the playoffs, Stern hit .357 (10 for 28) with 3 doubles, a homer, and 3 RBIs in nine games. He started six games, hitting leadoff, and his 13th-inning RBI single in Game 1 of Richmond's semifinal vs. Columbus won the game.

But the Braves, who had lefthanded-hitting outfielders J.D. Drew, Charles Thomas, and Ryan Langerhans to protect, left Stern exposed. The Sox would like to keep him, given his arm, speed, and upside. GM Theo Epstein said the team rates speed on a 20-80 scale, and Stern is about a 60. The only player of note in the organization with greater wheels is Triple A center fielder George Lombard, Epstein said.

''Impressive, isn't he?" manager Terry Francona said of Stern early in spring training.

Pouring in Portland
Double A Portland was rained out yesterday for the fourth straight game and ninth time this season. The previous franchise record was six rainouts in 2003, and Portland has yet to play one-third of its schedule. On the field, the Sea Dogs have slogged, going 12-16 since opening the year 10-0. Portland's pitching has been fine -- Sea Dogs starters have a 1.71 ERA in the last six games -- but the offense has vanished. In the last 14 games, Portland's cleanup hitters are batting .080 (4 for 50) with four singles and two RBIs (both ground outs). No cleanup hitter has an extra-base hit in 57 plate appearances, and the club hasn't had a homer out of the No. 4 spot in 105 plate appearances, dating to Jared Sandberg's homer April 22 . . . John Olerud, who played his third game with the PawSox last night, was called up to the big club after the game. Olerud's stint with Pawtucket scratched his name off an exclusive list. Before appearing Monday with Pawtucket, Olerud was one of three players drafted since 1965 never to play a minor league game. That club now counts only two members: Dave Winfield and Bob Horner. Olerud remains one of 17 players since the '65 draft to make his professional debut in the majors . . . Solid outing Tuesday by DiNardo, the PawSox lefty. He went five innings, allowed one run on five hits, and struck out eight. He's 0-1 with a 4.66 ERA in 29 innings.

Blown, savedThe previously immortal minor leaguer, Cla Meredith, blew a save Tuesday. Meredith entered a game at Norfolk with a 2-1 lead in the ninth and gave up a one-out single, then a two-out RBI single to tie it. But, Pawtucket catcher Kelly Shoppach (who also was called up the Sox after last night's game) made the blown save a mere line in the box score by delivering a winning homer in the 11th inning. His 11th homer of the season vaulted the 2001 second-round pick back into a tie for the International League lead. ''He's shortened up his swing, he's making a lot more contact, and he's hitting the ball harder," said Red Sox catcher Shawn Wooten, who teamed with Shoppach earlier this season as Pawtucket's catching duo and last night was designated for assignment. ''That's an adjustment he's definitely been making." Shoppach went into last night hitting .270 with 27 RBIs but is still averaging more than a strikeout per game (42 K's in 39 games). He could again challenge Phil Plantier's 1990 PawSox record of 148 whiffs. Shoppach, 25, came within 10 strikeouts last season of tying Plantier's inglorious record.

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