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Defense has provided a whole lot of glove

Jason Johnson had already been sent to Florida in preparation for tonight's start by the time the questions started. But had he still been present in the clubhouse prior to last night's series finale against the Mets, he likely would have been pleased to hear the answers. Because, unlike the porous defense from which he had been rescued by the Indians' decision to designate him for assignment and the Red Sox' decision to pick him up, Boston's defense, especially infield, has reached the elite.

And not just this season's elite. All-time elite.

With their 15th straight errorless game Wednesday, the Sox tied the American League record, set by the 1996 Texas Rangers. And by playing error-free defense in last night's 4-2 win, Boston tied the major league mark (St. Louis, 1992).

So when the sinkerball pitcher steps to the mound tonight to open a three-game series against the Marlins in his debut with Boston, the group behind him (Kevin Youkilis, Mark Loretta, Alex Gonzalez, and Mike Lowell) stands to act as a relaxing massage. Don't worry, we're here.

``You can tell sometimes that pitchers will pitch what they call `to contact,' where they're not afraid to let the guys hit it," Loretta said. ``Some teams, you can see guys, they're going for the strikeout because maybe they're not so sure about the defense, which is not a very good feeling for them, I'm sure."

With a steady right side of the infield -- second baseman Loretta was called ``underrated" by Lowell yesterday and Youkilis has found a home at first, across the diamond from his former position -- and a spectacular left side, the Sox are doing their best to shatter the perception built on years (decades, really) of teams constructed for power and offense. Defense? It was never a concern.

It is now. Three of the team's offseason pickups rank in the top two at their respective positions in the American League in fielding percentage -- Gonzalez is first at shortstop at .996, Loretta second at second base at .991, Lowell second at third base at .982. Which is a reason the team can afford to take a chance on Johnson, who will become the 10th pitcher to start a game for the Red Sox this season.

``You want to take your players', pitchers' strengths and make the most out of them," manager Terry Francona said. ``Jason's a smart kid. He sees what's going on here. The more grounders he gets, the better off we're going to be. He knows that."

Gonzalez and Lowell especially have exhibited great range and the ability to make accurate and quick throws on difficult plays, and the team as a whole has made the routine plays all season.

``Sometimes errors lead to huge innings for the other side, so the fact that we haven't been giving the opposition any breaks -- don't crack the door open because they might knock it down -- it's helped to keep playing well," Lowell said. ``In terms of whether you make an error on one play or not, the next guy might pop up and it might not mean anything, but still you give another opportunity to their offense to do something. Limiting that makes us play with 27 outs and no more."

Those words should sound sweet to Johnson, who ranks third in the American League in ground ball to fly ball ratio, at 2.85 to 1. Just as sweet as the defense that's been played behind every Sox starting pitcher this season.

``I don't think the streak is necessarily a big deal," Loretta said. ``For us as infielders, we want to have the pitchers have the confidence that they make their pitch and they get ground balls, we'll make the plays behind them. So far, we've been able to do that this year."

Better than any team in the majors. Up there with the elite. The all-time elite.

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