It was just a year and a half ago - after a miserable April - that Dustin Pedroia's batting average sat at .172. The calls were coming for Alex Cora to replace the Red Sox rookie at second base, the pressure was mounting, and yet Pedroia didn't seem ready to crumble. He knew he could hit .300. He had done it at every level of professional baseball, and there was no reason for it to stop.
Since then, Pedroia has gone from overmatched to overwhelming. And yesterday the second baseman rounded out his spate of postseason awards (Gold Glove, Silver Slugger) with the biggest of all, being named American League Most Valuable Player. Once known as the scrappy second baseman with the big swing, now Pedroia can claim much more than that.
"I'm not the biggest guy in the world," Pedroia said on a conference call from Arizona. "I don't have that many tools. If I'm walking down the street, you wouldn't think I'm a baseball player. I've had to deal with it my whole life. That's just been instilled. I have to do everything to prove [people] wrong."
Pedroia hit .326 with 17 home runs, 83 RBIs, and 118 runs, finishing second in the AL batting race. But he cleaned up everywhere else. He became the first Red Sox player to win the MVP Award since Mo Vaughn in 1995, and the first Sox second baseman ever. He is the first AL second baseman to win since Chicago's Nellie Fox in 1959.
"I really didn't know what to expect," Pedroia said. "I was just excited . . . having my name in with all those players. You look around the league, there are a ton of great players. For me to be in that category was an extreme honor for myself."
He was driving to work out with the Dodgers' Andre Ethier when his phone rang. He smiled upon hearing the news. Then, unusual for a player who has never been afraid to speak what's on his mind, he wasn't quite sure what to say. All he knew was that he ought to turn the car around and skip the day's session.
Pedroia was named on all but one of the 28 ballots cast by the Baseball Writers Association of America. He totaled 317 points, followed by Minnesota's Justin Morneau (257), the 2006 winner, and Sox teammate Kevin Youkilis (201). Pedroia got 16 first-place votes, with Morneau getting seven, Youkilis two, Joe Mauer two, and Francisco Rodriguez one.
"He's very deserving, and it's great to have the MVP coming from Boston," said Youkilis, who joined Pedroia as the first Sox teammates to finish in the top three in MVP voting since Roger Clemens (first) and Jim Rice (third) in 1986. "When a teammate wins, it's a great thing, and Dustin would tell you the same thing. [Pedroia winning] put a different spin on things. A lot of times, guys do the little things right and get pushed aside - not that power hitters don't do the little things right - but it's good to see guys who play the game right get the awards."
That, plus his stellar defense and an attitude that routinely draws laughter, has cemented Pedroia's place on a roster of veterans. Not only does his outsized personality overshadow his diminutive frame - he's listed at a generous 5 feet 9 inches, 180 pounds - it seems to have left legendary stories in his wake. For example, a first meeting with his Arizona State coach in which he walked in in an undershirt with cutoff sleeves and asked, "How do you like these guns?"
"That's just who I am," Pedroia said, denying that the accolades would change anything. "I have to try to find a way to have that edge. It makes me a better player. I'll always have it. That's never going to go away for me.
"Everyone was talking about a sophomore slump. In spring training, they're going to think last year was a fluke."
Despite Pedroia's salesman job on his need to prove himself, it is becoming harder to find those who are unconvinced. Pedroia set Red Sox season records for a second baseman in runs, hits (213), doubles (54), batting average, total bases, and extra-base hits. He led the major leagues in doubles and tied for first in hits. He even stepped into the cleanup spot when Youkilis was unavailable and went 12 for 18 (.667) with four doubles, two home runs, seven RBIs, and six runs. He also improved significantly on the bases, going 20 for 21 in steals.
Placing two home-grown players in the top three of MVP voting is notable for an organization that once had a poor farm system and poor record of advancing draft picks. Pedroia was selected by the Sox in the second round in 2004, their first pick in that year's draft. Youkilis was an eighth-rounder in 2001.
"We were really ecstatic Dustin was there," general manager Theo Epstein said on a conference call. "Getting to know him and what makes him tick, you can see beyond the perceived limitations of size, speed, strength, the things that might traditionally be held against him because of what's in his heart and what's in his head.
"Today's a day for a lot of our scouts and player development staff and major league staff to be walking around with their chests puffed out a little bit. I think as much as we'd love to take credit for them, both guys are just really good players. They came into our system knowing how to play the game the right way."
While Pedroia outpaced the competition in total votes, one voter, Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News, chose to leave him off his ballot. Grant chose Youkilis first, followed by Rodriguez and Morneau. He said it came down to certain statistical analysis - and the choice between the Rays' Carlos Peña or Pedroia at No. 10.
"I think the best way for me to sum it up is, in retrospect, obviously I was wrong," Grant said. "I had him on my ballot in some scenarios as high as No. 1 late into September. When I looked at the numbers that to me mattered most, OPS and batting average with runners in scoring position, he just didn't stack up with Youkilis at all. He was a laggard behind the others who had great years in the American League.
"Is it an error of omission that he's left off my ballot entirely? You could say that."
Globe correspondent Jessica Isner contributed to this report.