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Greek God of Walks continues to rock

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  April 25, 2009 09:04 AM

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The moments that once belonged to David Ortiz now take place in spite of him, as sure a sign as any that the Red Sox have again changed. The Red Sox of today are built around Kevin Youkilis, who seemingly has taken it upon himself now to replace Manny Ramirez and Ortiz both.

The Greek God of Walks is so much more than that these days, going 2 for 4 with walkoff home run last night in the Red Sox’ inspiring and improbable 5-4 extra-inning victory over the New York Yankees at Fenway Park. Like a pent-up Milan Lucic, Youkilis continues to hit most everything in his path. The first baseman of the Red Sox has a .433 average and silly 1.317 OPS, and it may be time to take Youkilis out of the Parthenon and put him in his own corner.

He just may be the best hitter in the American League.

"I don’t think he gets enough credit and I don’t think it bothers him,’’ Red Sox left fielder Jason Bay said of his teammate. "But what he’s doing right now is above and beyond. I don’t think he’s going to have that [relative] obscurity that much longer."

Bay admits that he did not know much about Youkilis before the trade that sent Ramirez to the Los Angeles Dodgers last summer, a move that simultaneously brought Bay to Boston and closed the book on one era in Red Sox history while seemingly opening another. Just like that, though we hardly knew it at the time, a Louisville Slugger was passed as if it were a baton. Ortiz lamented Ramirez's departure last summer and continued to vent this spring, though a funny thing has since taken place.

Youkilis has turned into Ramirez and Ortiz has morphed into ... who? Sam Horn? Calvin Pickering? Since Aug. 1 of last season, the line of delineation pre- and post-Manny, Youkilis is batting .350 with a 1.116 OPS and 58 RBIs in 61 regular season games. Ortiz is batting .250 with an OPS of .820. Add in the postseason and Youkilis is batting .339 with 65 RBIs in 72 games while Ortiz is batting .241, which makes at least one thing absolutely indisputable.

As much as Ortiz might think he misses Manny, he couldn’t have had better protection over the last nine months if he had hired the Secret Service.

Youkilis, for one, clearly was tweaked by Ortiz's desire for another hitter in the Boston lineup, something he thinly veiled during spring training. Asked about concerns over the Boston lineup during the World Baseball Classic, Youkilis said that he liked "our team" and "every hitter in our lineup," stressing that "there’s only one guy on the team who feels we need more." Baseball being the lesson in humility that it is, Youkilis has since looked like a Triple Crown candidate while Ortiz has struggled to hit .215, the latter of which seems like an excessive way to prove a point.

After all, could Ortiz possibly have imagined that the Red Sox might be a hitter short because of, well, him?

Last night, in the first season meeting between the Red Sox and Yankees, Ortiz certainly had his chances. He finished 1 for 6 with four strikeouts and left three men on base. Leading off in the ninth inning against Mariano Rivera, Ortiz struck out before Youkilis's single (a sharp liner to center) and Bay’s dramatic game-tying homer with two outs in the ninth. Two innings later, in the decisive 11th, Ortiz again led off with a strikeout before Youkilis pounded his game-winner over the left field wall against Yankees lefthander Damaso Marte.

In that way, maybe it was only fitting that Youkilis was the only man to be directly in the middle of the Red Sox’ game-tying and winning rallies, if only for the fact that he has been at the center of Boston’s offense for the better part of the last 18 months. Beginning with a sterling performance in the 2007 postseason, Youkilis is batting .328 with 150 RBIs in his last 175 games. Manager Terry Francona has moved Youkilis around the batting order and across the diamond, and Youkilis has continued hit at a pace to keep him in the same statistical class as, say, Ramirez, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, and Miguel Cabrera.

Youkilis has been hitting whoever, whatever, and wherever he wants, and one must strain to remember him having a poor at-bat.

"He does a lot of the things that a lot of the good hitters do,’’ observed Bay. "Especially right now, when he gets the pitch he wants to hit, he’s hitting it. He’s not missing it or fouling it off. My impression of him when I got here, because he was the Greek God of Walks and all that, was that he would take pitches just for the sake of taking them. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I don’t know if it was different before that or not.’’

Over the last two seasons, especially, Youkilis has indeed become a little more aggressive at the plate, though that could be as much a product of where he is batting in the bottom lineup as it is a testament to his maturity as a hitter. Youkilis's walk total went from 91 to 77 to 62 from 2006-2008, but his on-base percentage has increased. The simple explanation is that Youkilis’s batting average has gone up, which is to say that his bat has become as great a weapon as his keen eye.

Last night, even Yankees ace Joba Chamberlain approached Youkilis with trepidation, a compliment of the highest order given the seeming recklessness with which Chamberlain has approached Youkilis in the past. Chamberlain faced Youkilis on three occasions last night and walked him twice, the second intentionally after falling behind in the count, 3-1. Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland had preceded that at-bat by visiting Chamberlain on the mound, presumably to discuss the possibility of walking Youkilis intentionally with two outs and runners at second and third.

Though Chamberlain talked a good game with his pitching coach -- thanks to the wonder of high-definition television, Chamberlain appeared to mouth an expletive when the option of walking Youkilis came up -- Chamberlain handled the at-bat with care. He threw Youkilis offspeed pitches (primarily sliders) that were down and away before conceding the at-bat, then got J.D. Drew to end the inning on a flyout to left field.

Translation: No mas.

For Youkilis, the intentional walk was his third of the season, more than anyone in the game but Pujols, Ramirez, and Toronto first baseman Lyle Overbay (?). For the Sox as a team, the intentional walk was their seventh. Eight innings later, after Youkilis blasted a Marte pitch toward Kenmore Square, one can only wonder if the Yankees will approach Youkilis with even grater caution today and tomorrow.

Could it be that he is now the Greek God of Intentional Walks?

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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