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Regained edge, sharper play

Pedroia soared once he got back swagger

Dustin Pedroia likes to keep it loose, as he did Sunday giving Julio Lugo a slap on the back. Dustin Pedroia likes to keep it loose, as he did Sunday giving Julio Lugo a slap on the back. (BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF)

Dustin Pedroia's outfit screamed fashion disaster, misguided freshman, or worse. He walked by the office of Pat Murphy, the first time he would meet his coach at Arizona State in person, and made a muscle with one of his scrawny arms. "How do you like these guns?" he offered.

"What kid that size wears a white undershirt with cutoff sleeves?" Murphy says now, laughing through the phone. "He's 135 pounds. Now we've given him a scholarship. We're expecting him to be our starting shortstop.

"I laughed. I said [to assistant coach Jay Sferra], 'Either he can play or you're stupid.' "

By the time Pedroia left Tempe, Ariz., he had won the 2003 Pacific-10 Co-Player of the Year award and the 2003 National Defensive Player of the Year award. He had been a finalist for the 2004 Golden Spikes Award, given to the best collegiate player in the country. He had hit .384, scored 212 runs, and knocked in 146. He had committed just 23 errors.

Stupid? Not quite.

Three years later, there were more questions, as Pedroia kicked off his first full professional season, handed the second base job by the Red Sox in spring training. He turned quiet for that first month, his walk different, his attitude sublimated. No longer. As his stats have improved, as his Rookie of the Year campaign has heated up, Pedroia once again has become the kid with the guns, though with about 40 added pounds - and fewer cutoff shirts.

And, by now, those in the clubhouse have become attuned to him. They nod and chuckle, but not in condescension. In understanding.

"I like to joke around a lot," Pedroia said. "You've got to keep it loose. This game, you can't play all tense. If everyone's all tensed up, you know, it's not fun. I think if you get back to playing this game like you did as a kid instead of as it's your job, we'll all be better off for it."

Better off for the cockiness he brings. Better off with him in the lineup.

"He's done an unbelievable job," manager Terry Francona said. "It's like that younger brother syndrome. We beat on him. I beat on him all the time. But I love him. Nobody else better. That's that kind of thing where we can hit him but nobody else better. There's a fondness, and it goes far beyond that, but it's a genuine fondness. I mean, I love this kid."

Trying too hard

When Pedroia took over at second base in spring training - the incumbent, Mark Loretta, was not re-signed in the offseason - scouts started shaking their heads. They worried about his big swing, his lack of speed. And the concern seemed warranted. He wasn't hitting. Not in spring training. Not in April. Alex Cora spent more and more time in the lineup.

On the morning of May 2, Pedroia was hitting .172. He had as many hits (10) as he had walks. It was just one month into the season and he was failing already.

"You try to impress everybody," Pedroia said. "You want the fans to love you. You want the city to love you. You want your teammates to love you. But that doesn't happen overnight, and I tried to make it happen overnight.

"If you're not hitting, you've got to do something else to help your team win. If I could try to take over a game playing defense, then I had to do that.

"I've been a good baseball player my whole life. I figured it wouldn't stop here. I've worked so hard to get to this point and that's it. Once I got to the big leagues, this should be my time where I had fun. I think I put a little too much pressure on myself trying to do too much instead of just being myself."

His swagger was muted. The charisma, and the trash talk, that hit Murphy upon their introduction had flattened in Boston. Pedroia's deference to the rest of the team was hurting him.

"That's the way he has to play," Francona said. "He can't play without it or he wouldn't have gotten to this point. And he can't change. That maybe [was] part of the problem. When he first got here, he was very aware of veterans and it was good. But the real him had to come out for him to succeed."

Pedroia says he never doubted himself. Even when his wife, Kelli, fought through the worry and the concern and perhaps even a smidgen of doubt, Pedroia never did. He consoled her, telling her that he was going to be fine.

Even so, there was frustration. He was uncomfortable. He was, according to his manager, angry. He worked on his hitting constantly, and was soothed only by the consistency of his defense, something else those scouts had questioned. (Pedroia's response to those scouts, by the way: "I don't listen to any of that crap. Scouts, they're going to doubt me. They're just upset because they don't have the ability to be in the major leagues. That's why they're scouting.")

Still, Pedroia needed to regain not just his hitting stroke but also that edge. Without it, he wasn't the same player.

"That's Dustin's weakness - when he tries to come out of himself and starts to get away from that underdog role," Murphy said. "That's when he's not as good. The game's bigger than him. He can't control the outcome. He can just control his attitude. When he thinks he can control the outcome of the game, his results, that's when it's a problem. He really believes. He gets going and he believes he should hit every time and that's just not the way it is.

"He kept telling me, 'They'll see. I'm about to go on a tear. They'll see. I'm hitting, I'm just not getting hits.'

"He'd say unbelievable stuff. 'I'm going to hit .500 this month.' And he nearly did."

The extra element

Everyone knows what happened next. The surge, the comfort, the control Pedroia exerted over a batted ball, that led to his push to become one of the best second basemen in the league, offensively and defensively. May came, and Pedroia hit .415. He was named the American League Rookie of the Month. His walk changed, he became more confident.

He found his place. Both in the clubhouse and at the plate.

"My brother played in the big leagues," Cora said. "He needed that attitude. He was the same way [as Pedroia]. Sometimes we joke around and I feel embarrassed because I know a lot of people think my brother is a [jerk]. But he's a good guy. But on the field he was a [jerk] because he needed it. He's 5-7, 160 pounds. If he backed up, he was going to get pushed around and he wasn't going to have a good career."

Joey Cora spent 11 seasons in the major leagues, made an All-Star team, and now serves as bench coach for the White Sox. He's an example of a player whose physical gifts were augmented by a fierce desire to succeed. By a love of baseball.

"If [Pedroia] was going to get to the big leagues, he was going to have his game be more than a physical game," Murphy said. "It had to be a mental game. The kid is as good as any I've been around with hand-eye coordination, staying focused every game. Just his love for the game is really beautiful.

"This kid can't run. He's not very strong. He's 5-4, or whatever he is on a good day. He doesn't have much fast twitch. He's just a ballplayer."

Plays like one, too. Pedroia finished the season with a .317 average, the highest ever for a qualifying rookie second baseman. He hit 39 doubles and scored 86 runs, batting mostly near the top of the order, moving up from No. 9 once his offense came together (and it came together quickly).

And as he became more sure with the bat, as he became the player who hit .300 at every stop, as he settled down on the field and in the clubhouse, his personality came out. Not just the one whose competitiveness can overwhelm veteran teammates, but the serious one, the one Alex Cora refers to as a "baseball rat."

"I don't know if it's the big bonuses, but you see these kids, they come up, all they talk about is the latest shoes, the new style, whatever. The new trends in clothes, cars," Cora said. "It's cool, we all like that. But I think that baseball talk, you miss it.

"When we get on the plane, he plays cribbage with Mikey [Lowell], then halfway through playing he starts talking baseball. He comes over and talks to [Eric Hinske] about baseball. You really appreciate that. I told him, 'Dude, you're my bench coach. When I'm managing, you're going to be my bench coach.' "

(Not that Francona envies Cora. When told of the comment, Francona cracked, "I don't know if I would want to sit next to Pedey for a year. He'd drive you crazy.")

But Francona knows the type of player he has. One that has placed himself among the indispensables on a team that is about to begin its postseason.

"I don't think he's going to have to worry about bench coaching for a while," the manager said. "He's going to play for a long time."

For more on Dustin Pedroia, listen to the latest installment of Amalie Benjamin's series, "The Red Sox I Know" at www.boston.com/redsox.

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