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Happy return for Youkilis

If you don't think Kevin Youkilis is happy to be back in the Red Sox lineup, consider this: He was in his uniform and on the field three hours before last night's game against the Devil Rays.

He spent some of the time throwing perfect spirals with a football in the outfield. He also ventured into the grandstand and made friends with a few puppies who were on hand for a promotion.

Youkilis can't be blamed for being on the field early. After going on the disabled list Aug. 15, he was evicted from his old locker and now has a makeshift space in the middle of the locker room.

He was in the lineup last night for the third straight game, but only because Bill Mueller has a sore right knee. It's not an unfamiliar situation for Youkilis.

In May, when Mueller initially hurt his knee, which required surgery, the Red Sox recalled Youkilis and he responded immediately. The 25-year-old third baseman went 2 for 4 with a home run against the Blue Jays May 15.

Although he played only half of May, he was named the AL's Rookie of the Month, batting .318 and fashioning an on-base percentage of .446 in 13 games.

Life was easier then. It was before he sustained a bone bruise in his right ankle in a home plate collision with White Sox catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. Aug. 15. Since then, Youkilis hasn't seen much live pitching.

He has spent most of his time in the batting cage, trying to stay sharp and improve his .272 average.

"It's been a tough transition, not playing and then coming back in," said Youkilis. "It's tough hitting-wise, but not as difficult fielding. I'm having no problem taking the ground balls. But seeing live pitching is a lot tougher."

He started his first game back Saturday after being activated from the disabled list Sept. 1. He went 0 for 3 with a walk in a 9-0 victory over the Mariners. He replaced Mueller in the fifth inning Tuesday night against the Devil Rays, and, despite going hitless in two at-bats, he feels he is making progress.

In fact, Youkilis thought he had tattooed a ball in the eighth that shortstop Julio Lugo kicked away for an error.

"My last at-bat, I felt like I hit it good," said Youkilis, whose bat shattered on contact. "I couldn't believe it. I was running down first base and I said, what the heck. I thought I hit it square. It was funny. It felt good. It was a sinker inside and I got the barrel squarely on it."

While he is happy to be in the lineup, he wishes it weren't at the expense of Mueller. "The situation with Bill isn't the kind you want to get back in the lineup, losing one of your teammates," said Youkilis. "But I've just got to get out there and keep playing good baseball."

Youkilis figures he just needs more live at-bats to get back into form.

"I think playing every day is going to help me a lot," he said. "You know you're going to get your at-bats every day when you're in the lineup. You get into a routine every day and you get used to seeing pitches and you get more comfortable and that's the whole thing with this game.

"You've got to be comfortable. I'm hoping to get back to the level of comfort and start hitting again. Basically driving in runs and getting guys over and playing baseball and doing the things I can do to help this team."

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