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Foulke's business trip quite profitable

Stopper has been on the money lately

Keith Foulke still won't admit he made a clandestine visit to the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Ala., May 23. But Foulke's dramatic turnaround directly coincides with that stopover for an assessment of his mechanics.

Consider the following, going into last night's game:

Foulke, before May 23: 20 G, 21 IP, 2-3, 7.29 ERA, 25 H, 17 R, 15 SO, 8 BB, 6 HRs.

Foulke, since May 23: 10 G, 10 IP, 2-0, 0.90 ERA, 8 H, 1 R, 9 SO, 2 BB, 0 HRs.

Of all major league pitchers with at least 10 innings pitched since May 23, Foulke went into last night with the 10th-best ERA. He'd appeared in three straight games, and in those games pitched three innings, allowing one hit and no walks while striking out six, including the last two Pittsburgh batters he faced in the ninth inning of a tie game Friday night.

Red Sox management and coaches still cannot comment on Foulke's Alabama visit because they promised him they would not. This has all come much to the club's surprise, given that Foulke's willingness to have his mechanics checked on his own time is, if anything, laudable.

But the feeling on Yawkey Way is that Foulke's day at ASMI convinced him that mechanically he was close to being his former self, and that conviction has bred a new demeanor. He's more self-confident, less edgy, and less likely to carry the results of one outing into the next.

Catcher Jason Varitek senses a mechanical adjustment as well, though Varitek believes it predated the ASMI visit. While Foulke was perhaps pushing the ball to a spot early in the season, he's now throwing with confidence, which has provided more late pickup on his pitches. That's a necessity, given his relative lack of velocity.

''The ball's got travel the last 3 or 4 feet," Varitek said. ''He's still throwing the same speed. It doesn't matter if it's 86 [miles per hour] or 89 or 84. It's got that 'pffft' at the end. It's called travel. It's kind of a crazy thing. But the ball picks up speed."

That's why Foulke was able to fan Ryan Doumit to end the top of the ninth Friday with an 85-m.p.h. fastball.

When Kevin Youkilis popped out of the dugout to pinch run Friday, at least a few people wondered aloud: Why not Ramón Vázquez?

''He's faster," manager Terry Francona said of Youkilis. ''He's way faster."

This further underscores Vázquez's marginalization. The utility infielder went into last night having appeared in only seven of the last 36 games and one of the last six. In those 36 games, he had just 16 at-bats.

Francona said Vázquez continues to battle a leg problem. Vázquez missed time in late April and early May because of an ailing quadriceps. He said he didn't think he was showing signs of lingering pain until a Sox coach asked him recently if he was holding back.

''I might be," Vázquez answered.

When he attempts to go full throttle, Vázquez said, he feels ''a little stretch" in his upper leg.

He missed considerable time with muscle injuries to each leg when with San Diego, and he's concerned a similar situation could occur this year.

''I think I'm just scared to do it and be out for two months," he said.

That has left Francona with someone he's hardly able to utilize.

''He's not running very good," Francona said. ''It's just hurting him. When they're both healthy [Youkilis and Vázquez], that [pinch-running decision] may be a different situation. Because Youk's certainly no burner.

''I will say Youk's a good base runner. But pinch running Youkilis probably doesn't happen on most teams."

Manny Ramírez entered last night's game leading the majors in outfield assists with nine. He had four all of last season, and 11 the year before, his highest total as a member of the Red Sox. Why the increase?

''Maybe four things," Francona said. ''One is proximity [playing in Fenway's small left field]. One is occurrence of balls hit. If there's two outs, runners go, third base coaches send guys.

''His accuracy has been very good, he gets rid of the ball quickly. And the other thing is they may run on him more than other guys. Some of that is coincidence. Some of that is scouting reports.

''I think he does a better job than he gets credit for. He'll run into those car accidents once in a while. Nine out of 10 times he does a pretty good job, but once in a while he'll run into a little problem out there."

Alan Embree went into last night without an appearance in seven days (six games), dating to June 10 at Wrigley Field. Embree's ERA that day swelled to 7.00, and his ERA in his last nine appearances was 15.25. Francona, to a degree, disputed the notion that Embree's breather was by design. ''I think it was designed once last year," Francona said. ''We thought he needed a little bit of a blow." This time? ''Mike Myers has been getting all the lefties out he's facing. Our starters have gone deep enough in the game. Some of it is just the way the game plays out. It's a very fine line, putting an arm around a guy and telling him you need him, or not using him for a week and the game is on the line and saying, 'Here you go, big fella.' It's a real fine line." . . . The Sox announced the signing of 15 of their picks in this month's draft, though all of those signed were picked in the seventh round or later. The signing to watch -- and probably wait for -- is that of Craig Hansen, the former St. John's University closer taken in Round 1 (26th overall) . . . Curt Schilling will throw a simulated game, the equivalent of two or three innings, tomorrow at Cleveland. Expect Youkilis and Vázquez to hit, and possibly, Doug Mirabelli. Schilling remains on target for a rehab start -- his first of two or three -- Saturday with Pawtucket at Richmond.

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