Not just a survivor, Youkilis is a starter
Kevin Youkilis is 5 for 13 (.385 BA) with two walks in four games for the Red Sox this season. (AP Photo)
Anywhere else, he'd probably be considered one of the new guys, too. Like the rest of the Red Sox infield -- Mark Loretta, the second baseman, Alex Gonzalez, the shortstop, and Mike Lowell, the third baseman -- Kevin Youkilis, the first baseman, never has been in the starting lineup for a Sox home opener, though he was on the roster for last spring's ring ceremony before his ticket to Pawtucket was punched, again, just two days later.
So why does it feel like Youkilis is one of the old guys?
''I'm one of the guys who was part of the World Series team," said Youkilis, who didn't play against the Cardinals in the four-game sweep in 2004 but is a survivor, one of just 10 players remaining from the team that spilled champagne on Gussie Busch's ballpark before it was knocked down. (Your Opening Day quiz is to name the 10 players who are still here, and the 15 players departed from the World Series roster in that championship season. Answers below.)
''A veteran? Not even close," said Youkilis, who also has the advantage of a name that lends itself to being invoked by a crowd that seamlessly shifted from ''Loooouuuu" to ''Yoooouuuukkk" after the Framingham Kid, Lou Merloni, left town.
''It's more like a I'm a familiar face, I'd have to say, around Red Sox Nation, stuff like that. A guy who's been around, who people know through the minor leagues and up into the major leagues. People recognize me. I was drafted by the Red Sox, moved up through Lowell, Portland, Pawtucket. So they got to see me a little more."
Since being drafted out of the University of Cincinnati on the eighth round in 2001, Youkilis has seen almost as much of New England as Peter Pan Bus Lines, and while so many of his fellow passengers have been spun into other orbits, Youkilis has remained anchored. Take a look at Boston's top prospects list in 2003: Hanley Ramirez, gone to the Marlins. Kelly Shoppach, off to the Indians. Freddy Sanchez, now playing for the Pirates. Phil Dumatrait, pitching in the Reds organization. Of 10 names on that list, Youkilis is the only one with the Sox, and Jon Lester and Manny Delcarmen are the only others still in the Sox system.
And now, he's playing a new position, first base, when it was assumed for much of last summer that he would inherit third base from Bill Mueller. Instead, the Sox inherited Lowell to play third as part of the Josh Beckett deal, and cut ties with last year's first base incumbents, Kevin Millar and John Olerud, Youkilis was shifted across the diamond, with J.T. Snow imported to provide veteran backup help.
Youkilis is relatively old, 27, to be getting his first shot at regular playing time, but he's always been an object of fascination for Sox general manager Theo Epstein, because of his high on-base percentage and extraordinary plate discipline. He made people notice when he tied Millar's minor league record of reaching base in 71 consecutive games, and showed the same tenacity when called up to the big leagues the first time, in May 2004, when Mueller went down with a knee injury and Youkilis homered in his first game and reached base in each of his first 10.
Last season, playing 44 games in a total of five stints with the Sox (he also played 43 in four tours of Pawtucket), Youkilis saw an average of 4.67 pitches per plate appearance. That ranked him first among big-league players with at least 90 plate appearances.
Youkilis so far has played a mistake-free first base while getting off to a nice start at the plate: 5 hits, including a double, in 13 at-bats, for a .385 average and, with a couple of walks, a .471 on-base percentage. He's had four at-bats with runners in scoring position and delivered hits three times.
But by the game's normal parameters, Youkilis doesn't fit the profile of the position he plays. Five of last season's top 10 home run hitters were first basemen: Derrek Lee, Mark Teixeira, Albert Pujols, Paul Konerko, and Richie Sexson.
The Sox this spring picked up a first baseman on waivers, Hee Seop Choi, who has shown some power in the past, and the question lingers whether they'll feel compelled to opt for more pop down the road, especially since it's been seven years since Snow has hit as many as 20 home runs in a season.
Youkilis has 8 home runs in 287 big-league at-bats, 30 in 1,407 at-bats in the minor leagues.
''He's an interesting guy," said one rival general manager, ''but he's not a guy that I say, 'Man, I wish we had him on our team.' "
It is enough for Youkilis that Epstein wants him on his team. On a team that has Manny Ramírez and David Ortiz to do the principal bashing, Youkilis sees little reason to alter his game.
''I think the game's changed a lot," he said. ''You see more guys playing shortstop and second base who are hitting 40 home runs. It's ridiculous. You go back 10, 15 years, a lot of times you didn't have a shortstop hitting even 20. It's a different ballgame. I'm fortunate on our team that the DH is one of the best hitters in baseball. He drives in 140 runs. Manny drives in 140.
''The biggest thing for myself, my role, is you don't have to be a power guy. You just have to get on base and drive in runs when we need it. To me, the best stats are runs, and RBIs. They're the only ones that mean anything. Even on-base percentage, that matters because it means if you're getting on base, you're scoring runs."
Hitting in the 8-hole, Youkilis said, his job is to keep the pressure on the opposing pitcher. He's going to see pitches to hit, Youkilis maintains, because pitchers will come right at him.
''Fighting off pitches, fouling off pitches, laying off pitches, making it so the opposing pitcher can't breathe, that's my job," he said.
It's called survival. So far, he's been very good at it. That's why he feels like one of the old guys.
Here are the players who were on the 2004 World Series roster and are gone, 16 months later (or, as they say in ''Les Miserables," empty chairs at empty tables): Bronson Arroyo, Mark Bellhorn, Orlando Cabrera, Johnny Damon, Alan Embree, Derek Lowe, Pedro Martínez, Doug Mientkiewicz, Kevin Millar, Doug Mirabelli, Bill Mueller, Pokey Reese, Curtis Leskanic, Dave Roberts, Mike Myers.
The survivors: Keith Foulke, Trot Nixon, David Ortiz, Manny Ramírez, Mike Timlin, Jason Varitek, Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield, Kevin Youkilis, Gabe Kapler (minor league rehab).