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Beltre comes out swinging

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  April 5, 2010 12:50 PM

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300beltre.jpgIn four plate appearances last night, perhaps the most important man in the Red Sox lineup this season saw a total of just 13 pitches, nine of them strikes. Adrian Beltre swung at seven of them and put three into play, driving home two runs.

Yo Adrian: Keep hackin’.

The run prevention Red Sox began their season with a 9-7 win over the New York Yankees last night at Fenway Park, and general manager Theo Epstein must have been smirking somewhere as the Sox overcame an early 5-1 deficit and piled up 12 hits against the reigning world champions. One game will not change the questions about the Red Sox offense this season, particularly against good pitching, but a good start for everyone from Beltre to Marco Scutaro cannot do anything but help the cause.

"I think it’s good for them," Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis said of the combined 5-for-9 performance from Beltre, Mike Cameron and Marco Scutaro. "Sometimes, there’s a little added pressure here."

For all of the new members of the Red Sox, none may feel more pressure than Beltre, who has been thrust in the No. 6 spot in the Boston batting order. That is the spot behind David Ortiz, who last night went 0 for 3 and left two men on base. Already, there is reason to wonder whether Ortiz or Mike Lowell should start on Wednesday against Yankees lefthander Andy Pettitte, and there would be even greater reason if Beltre didn’t bail out Ortiz by driving home the two men stranded by the once-big Papi.

In this Red Sox lineup and in this era of Sox history, Beltre stands as the great exception in Theo’s rules. He swings first and asks questions later. Among the 182 major league players last season with at least 450 plate appearances, Beltre ranked 157th in pitches seen per plate appearance. (Youkilis, by contrast, was first in the AL and second overall in the majors to Philadelphia’s Jayson Werth.) Beltre’s aggressiveness defies everything the Sox have preached in a Sox era obsessed with on-base percentage, and it’s a darned good thing, too.

The Red Sox, after all, need at least some people to do damage with the bat, especially if Ortiz continues a deterioration that began two years ago.

Here’s the problem with on-base percentage, at least when seen on its own: there is a very big difference between someone who hits his way and someone who walks his way on, and the former has greater value. Youkilis’s walk totals have dipped since he drew a career-best 91 walks in 2006, but his batting average, on-base percentage and OPS have gone up. The result has been a legitimate and bona fide cleanup hitter, RBI man and MVP candidate, all because the bat is still a hitter’s greatest weapon.

This is where Beltre comes in, and not solely because he may be the man asked to clean up any messes left behind by Big Papi. Last season, against the five American League pitching staffs who walked the fewest batters – a list that includes Oakland, Detroit and Tampa Bay, among others – the Red Sox went 26-28, including postseason. Against the five teams who walked the most batters, the Sox were 38-22. (That is a 103-win pace over a full season.) This only fortifies the theory that the Red Sox beat up on bad pitchers and lose to the good ones, if only because the good ones were throwing strikes and forcing the Sox to more frequently swing the bats.

Admittedly, that is all a relatively elementary way of looking at what the Red Sox’ offensive issues have been over the last 1 1/2 seasons, but you get the idea. If you force the Sox to swing the bats, your chances of beating them are better. That wasn’t necessarily true when Ortiz and Manny Ramirez were in their prime in the middle of the Boston order, but it is certainly true now in a lineup that spikes with the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 hitters.

Last night, after all, Dustin Pedroia, Victor Martinez and Youkilis went a combined 6 for 13 with six runs scored and five RBIs. Barring injury, those three players will continue to produce. But what happens after them could gave an enormous bearing on the success of the 2010 Red Sox, and no Sox newcomer has greater upside offensively than Beltre.

OK, so maybe Beltre will never replicate the curious .334 average, 48 home runs and 121 RBIs he posted during the 2004 season; he has otherwise never been quite the same player. Yet it is also true that Beltre has never truly played his home games in a hitter-friendly park, which makes one wonder what he might be able to do at Fenway, in a contract year, in still a better lineup than anything he has ever has been a part of.

For all the attention placed on the bottom half of the Red Sox lineup this season, the key spots are really in the middle of that cluster. Those spots belong to Beltre and Drew. Even if Ortiz continues to slide this year, the Sox can withstand it if Beltre and Drew have productive seasons, the precise definition of which is entirely open to debate. Last season, in his final 42 games, Drew batted .367 and had an OPS of 1.182. Numbers like that are not realistic over the course of a full season, but the Sox need something closer to that than to the Drew who plummeted into the .230s last summer with a 3 for 47 slump.

Now, in 2010, Drew is batting behind Beltre, a rare free swinger at this time in Red Sox history. Beltre has a terrific on-base man behind him and several on-base men in front, all of which makes it important that he continues to carry a bat in his hands.

And that he continues to swing it.

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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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