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Inspired Graffanino merits a second thought

Even before last night, he had quietly worked his way into your heart. Tony Graffanino showed up on July 19 from Kansas City -- the equivalent of a major league baseball graveyard -- in exchange for a couple of minor leaguers, so you weren't all that excited at the time. He had been with four other teams in his career, and he seemed to represent a nice little slice of depth, some insurance for an infield that has been scuffling with injuries.

The timing of his arrival coincided with Mark Bellhorn's sprained thumb, which landed the incumbent second baseman on the 15-day disabled list and has kept him there for 20 games. While Bellhorn continues to toil (and we mean toil) in Pawtucket, with his confidence in question, his replacement in the big leagues has presented the Red Sox with an interesting option to consider.

There was nothing subtle about the message Graffanino delivered last night. He went 3 for 3 with four RBIs, belting a three-run homer (his first in a Boston uniform) in the fifth inning to break a 5-5 tie and send the home team on its way to an 11-6 win over the potent Texas Rangers.

How daunting was Boston's second baseman to Texas pitching last night? With two down in the seventh and a man on third, the Rangers opted to intentionally walk Graffanino and pitch to Alex Cora. So what does Graffanino do? He steals second, and later charges home on a shallow Johnny Damon single.

Graffanino's fingerprints were all over this win. In the fourth, after he led off with a line single up the middle, he wound up on third base, then barreled home on James Baldwin's wild pitch to David Ortiz.

He also acquitted himself well in the field. Graffanino chased down an Alfonso Soriano pop fly in foul ground near the tarp along the first-base line, pocketing the third out in the fourth inning. At the time Graffanino was alertly snagging Soriano's mis-hit, there were men on first and third. He also deftly turned an inning-ending double play in the fifth.

''This guy came in and really helped solidify not just second base, but our ball club," offered manager Terry Francona.

There is an unspoken rule in baseball that players cannot lose their jobs because of an injury. With that theory in place, you could surmise that when Bellhorn is deemed fit, he will assume his place in the lineup. When you factor in Francona's penchant for loyalty above all, it would seem Bellhorn has nothing to worry about.

Or does he? The truth is, before he damaged his thumb, Bellhorn was in danger of losing his job anyway. It has been a nightmarish season for the quiet, conscientious infielder whose loose locks and disheveled uniform conjure up comparisons to the lovable Pigpen character in ''Peanuts." His teammates staunchly defend him, because Bellhorn works hard, keeps his mouth shut, and desperately wants to succeed. He drives fans crazy because he waits and waits and waits and WAITS on pitches and strikes out far too often. He has whiffed a team-leading 109 times this season (Manny Ramirez is second with 83). He was batting .216 when he went down, and he heard about it, almost every night.

Kevin Millar was concerned enough about Bellhorn's psyche to invite him to Texas over the All-Star break and provide his own version of a pep talk. Shortly after that, Bellhorn went down with his injury.

''Bellhorn needs to get his stuff right," Millar said last night. ''He needs to start feeling good again. If he does that, he's part of this team."

But in what role? Is it realistic to expect Bellhorn to resume his starting position?

''This time of year, you do what it takes to win," Millar conceded. ''Bellhorn understands that. Tony Graffanino and Alex Cora have been tremendous for us. That's what depth is all about.

''At some point Bellhorn will get right, and he'll help someone, whether it's the Red Sox or one of the 20-other-something teams. Remember, this guy came up with some of the biggest hits this team has ever had. He just needs some time.

''Three weeks from now, we might not even be talking about any of this. I mean, how many times have I been on my last toe?"

While Bellhorn tries to regain his groove, Graffanino continues to produce. He is batting .333 with the Sox and has produced 6 RBIs and 12 runs in 14 games. Equally important, he's been a steady, effective presence in the infield. While his teammates were tossing the ball around the Metrodome last weekend (eight errors in three games, as many as they committed in the previous 37), Graffanino did not contribute to the total. His next error for the Sox will be his first.

Asked long before Graffanino's heroics last night what kind of decision he would make when Bellhorn was declared ready, Francona sidestepped the question.

''I'm not ready to go there yet," he said. ''These things work themselves out."

Graffanino said last night that he almost joined the Red Sox last winter, but was concerned there would not be enough playing time. He said he has tried not to think about his long-term future here.

''I'm not really thinking about Bellhorn," he said. ''I can't control any of that stuff. I just come to the ballpark ready to play and try to do what I can do."

You know it will pain Francona considerably to give up on Bellhorn, but you also know that the Red Sox are preparing to defend their World Series championship, and, at the end of the day, the manager's job is to put the best lineup on the field.

At the moment, that lineup includes Tony Graffanino, who has quickly become a fan favorite and upgraded himself to temporary cult hero after last night's performance.

Before last night, his lifetime batting average in the big leagues was .264. He's now hit 39 home runs in 10 seasons. But the Red Sox don't need a slugging second baseman. What they need is a consistent presence, and the fact that Graffanino has provided that -- as well as some spirited base running and timely hitting -- has made him a perfect fit at a perfect time for this team. Does that guarantee him the job in September or October? Hardly, but at this moment, it's hard to imagine a Sox lineup without him.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her email address is

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