Cameron not a forgotten man

Healthy veteran being counted on

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / March 15, 2011

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — The Red Sox have worked with several of their players on the art of bunting for a base hit during spring training, holding early morning sessions to improve a skill that seems to be disappearing from the game.

One player who put that work to good use was 38-year-old Mike Cameron, who on Saturday put down a perfect bunt leading off against Marlins ace Josh Johnson and beat the throw to first. It led to the Sox scoring three runs.

The idea of beating out a bunt did not enter Cameron’s mind last year. After tearing muscles in his lower abdomen in spring training, the season became one of pain and frustration. It finally ended in August when he underwent extensive surgery.

“Night and day,’’ he said about his physical condition. “I’ve been able to worry about just going out and playing and not being so concerned about my body.

“It’s a good feeling to be able to make a turn and not feel it aching all the time or take a swing without something hurting or making a throw and almost falling over. It feels good.’’

The return to health shows on the field. Cameron had a hit and drew a walk in last night’s 2-1 victory against the Yankees. He is 9 for 21 (.429) with two doubles, three RBIs, and a stolen base.

“He’s able to show what he can do,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “That’s what we were hoping for last year, and it was just so hard for him to show it. He just couldn’t get loose.’’

But as Cameron returns to better health, he is facing the challenge of playing off the bench for the first time in his long career. The Sox are committed to using Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury, and J.D. Drew and have Cameron as the fourth outfielder.

But his will not be an ordinary reserve role. With three lefthanded hitters in the outfield, the righthanded-hitting Cameron could get 300-350 at-bats, if not more.

“Those things have a way of working out,’’ said Francona, who passed on predicting how often Cameron would play.

“I think Cam, when he’s healthy, he can play against anybody. But especially those days when J.D.’s knees are a little beat up or you want to give him a break. It gives us a potent bat. I think we’re excited about that. I think Cam is too.’’

Cameron is in the final year of his contract and has readily accepted the idea of a lesser role. In part, because he knows it will help to keep him healthy but also out of respect for Francona, who was his hitting coach in 1991 when both were with the White Sox organization. The two have had a solid relationship since.

“I trust Tito,’’ Cameron said. “He’s going to balance everything the right way.’’

When the Red Sox signed Crawford, essentially pushing Cameron out of the lineup, general manager Theo Epstein was proactive in assuring the veteran he would have a meaningful role.

“I think Theo did a really good job. When we got Crawford, that was the first call he made, was to Cam,’’ Francona said. “It was handled very well and Cam in turn handled it very well. I think it’s going to work out just fine.’’

That Cameron is willing to accept a reserve role will make Francona’s job easier.

“It’s less babysitting,’’ the manager said. “You walk a little bit of a fine line. Theo and I have had this discussion a lot. If something goes wrong, you want somebody on the bench who is good enough to play. But if you have somebody sitting on the bench that doesn’t handle not playing, we’ve run into that from time to time.’’

Cameron had a .799 OPS and averaged 23 home runs from 2006-09 when he was with the Padres and Brewers. What the Red Sox saw last year was not representative of what he can do as Cameron had only four home runs in 162 at-bats.

“I can do what I always do, that’s the way I feel right now,’’ he said. “My swing is back and I can run again. I feel like I’ve been pretty consistent in my career. I can contribute to this team with the way I feel. It has been a good spring.’’

A center fielder for much of his career, Cameron has played five innings of left field in spring training and last night started for the second time in right field. Francona plans to use him at all three outfield positions.

“It’s a challenge but I’ve done it before,’’ Cameron said. “If you can play center, you can play the corners, and I know I can still play center. It’s just getting out there and getting used to the angles. But I’m willing to play wherever they want me to play.

“I’m just being a baseball player. After last year, it’s good to say that.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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