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Second chance

After tough September stretch in '06, Pedroia wised up, shaped up, and slimmed down

Defense has never been the issue with Dustin Pedroia, who worked out with new double play partner Julio Lugo yesterday. Defense has never been the issue with Dustin Pedroia, who worked out with new double play partner Julio Lugo yesterday. (JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF)

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Dustin Pedroia took the softball lobbed from Don Kalkstein, the Red Sox director of performance enhancement, perfectly in stride, a half-sly, half-amused smile breaking out over his youthful features. Playing reporter, Kalkstein had sauntered over to the spring training locker of one of the least-discussed of the Sox' unknowns -- compared with, say, Daisuke Matsuzaka -- and asked that most important of questions: Will he be changing his number?

That No. 64, assigned to Pedroia upon his major league debut last season, does look odd, hanging on the small frame of the man seemingly handed the starting second base job for the upcoming season. But Pedroia, ever affable, had the perfect retort: "Gotta remember where you came from."

Though it would be unusual for him to keep the number, Pedroia is mindful of his position, that of a 23-year-old rookie starting for the Red Sox, one of the few position players in recent years to come up through the organization. But it's not just that. Since he found himself dragging last August, mindful of fighting through a wall if he were called up, Pedroia has undergone a radical transformation, shrinking from his pudgy 196 pounds -- at a listed 5 feet 9 inches -- to a svelte 171.

"It was tough on me," Pedroia said. "But, definitely, that's one of the things I learned, is I never want to feel that way at the end of the year, because at the end of the year I want to feel at my strongest. I definitely, definitely made sure that wouldn't happen [again]."

From the exhaustion that came with a strict 2,000-calorie diet to the slightly more forgiving 3,000 calories he's up to now, Pedroia spent the majority of his offseason hours in a workout mecca, changing his body and himself, building what he hopes is a better baseball player.

He did it for many reasons, to rehabilitate his injuries (shoulder and knee), to change his body composition, to feel better moving at second base. Perhaps all that lost weight, all that desire, will change the perception of Pedroia as a player -- make more baseball people draw positive comparisons to David Eckstein, the former Sox farmhand who went on to win World Series with the Angels and Cardinals.

"I kind of figured out what I needed to do to be successful, and that's get a lot faster, get a lot stronger, and make sure my body stays that way throughout the whole year," Pedroia said. "There's no doubt it's going to stay strong and I'm going to stay healthy.

"I knew I was going to get a chance. It's what I make of it. I busted my butt this offseason. It's going to show."

Because when he's remembering where he came from, it's not just Pawtucket.

The Arizona regimen
It wasn't like kindergarten. There was some choice in the daily menu -- requests to the chef -- but that certainly didn't mean Pedroia was going to eat whatever he wanted. Hardly.

Individual pizzas for the rest of the crew became half for him, with a side of fruit. Yogurt for a snack. Portion control became paramount, and with new wife Kelli doing the cooking, the measuring cups appeared often. It was all new to him.

"I didn't care what I ate," Pedroia said. "I was just like, 'I'm going to go play ball. Who cares?' Then you start figuring out how long the season is. You actually need this, it keeps you more healthy, it keeps you feeling stronger."

After playing overweight last season -- mostly because of injury, he says -- Pedroia decided that his offseason would be a whirl of weights and weight loss, and he headed to Athletes' Performance in Arizona (which he had visited in college), almost immediately after his Nov. 11 wedding and a 10-day Hawaiian honeymoon.

"We talked about it last year in spring training where he came in a little heavy, heaviest I've ever seen him since he's been drafted," said Kevin Youkilis, a four-year veteran of the program. "I told him, 'You can't afford to come in like that again.'

"He knew. He knew right away. Until other people see what you look like, you see yourself in the mirror every day and you don't realize it sometimes. You know, I think he knew after last year that it was unacceptable."

Working with Craig Friedman, a performance specialist, in a group that also included Youkilis, Baltimore's Jay Gibbons and Brian Roberts, and Tampa Bay's Carl Crawford, Pedroia would arrive at 7:45 a.m. for breakfast and not leave until late afternoon. Two daily training sessions were interspersed with hitting and fielding drills, with Pedroia working on injury reduction, movement skills (straight ahead or multidirectional), stability work, vision training, medicine ball throws, and strength and power in the weight room.

"One of his main goals was just to be in shape, whether that be from a body composition standpoint or to go out and play baseball without getting injured," Friedman said. "Take advantage of the opportunities that he can have on the field. He did a great job, I think, of positioning himself where he can worry about baseball. He doesn't need to worry about losing weight or taking care of his shoulder. He did all that. He can focus on becoming a better baseball player."

Oh, and with fast friend (and Notre Dame quarterback) Brady Quinn -- who was preparing for the NFL combine -- he also conducted a reign of terror at the ping-pong table, something he's more than happy to boast about.

"If Jack Bauer from '24' played ping-pong," Friedman said, "that's how Dustin would play."

Questions about swing
Asked about Pedroia, Mike Lowell goes right for the swing. Not to criticize, mind you; he says he actually likes it, but he points out the difference from last year's second baseman, Mark Loretta.

"We'll see how quickly he can adjust," Lowell said.

The theory of many scouts is that Pedroia's swing is far too big for his body; it appears designed to send balls crashing over fences, when he has only the power to be a line-drive hitter.

"Everyone's always said, 'He can't do it,' " Pedroia said. "If I started listening to those people now, it could get ugly. I'm just going to stick to what I do. I know if I was successful, it was for a reason."

Other than a 51-game stint in Pawtucket in 2005, Pedroia has never hit below .300 in any of his stops in the minor leagues; he had a .305 average in Triple A before his call-up to Boston last season. That's what Pedroia keeps in the back of his mind. That's what gives him confidence. No matter what the critics say, no matter how the scouts argue, he's always done it.

Until he got to Boston. With the Red Sox last season, Pedroia's .191 average in 89 at-bats led some to question how he will make the transition, though one National League scout cautions that decisions should never be based on spring training or September.

That said, there are still questions.

"He swings like he's a big home run hitter," said another NL scout. "Consequently, he hits a lot of balls in the air and very few of them are going to go out of the ballpark. He has a very good idea of the strike zone, puts balls in play. I can envision him as a .280-.290 hitter, but he's not going to hit a lot of home runs. Maybe 10.

"For him to have some value for me, he has to be hitting in the high .200s. If he doesn't do that, he doesn't do enough other things to warrant being an everyday player."

That may be true. It may not be. It's all up to Pedroia.

"He's not going to have a lot of fear about it. Not a guy who's going to get overwhelmed," said the first NL scout. "I'm not a Pedroia guy. [But] give him the benefit of the doubt. He's got a lot of work [to do] on defense. He works hard and, like Youkilis, you can improve. I'm sure he's going to be a guy working on it."

If his transformation in the offseason is any indication, he surely will be. For now, perhaps it's better for him that Matsuzaka and Curt Schilling and Manny Ramírez are getting all the attention. Pedroia can just fade into the background, aided by his slimmer frame and healthy body.

"The big thing is you just can't put added pressure on yourself," Youkilis said. "For a guy like Dustin right now, from what it looks like and what I've heard, he's going to be hitting ninth, he's going to be playing second base. He goes up there every day, he plays great defense, he gets on base, drives in a run here and there.

"He's not looked on to hit .330, drive in 100 runs. He's looked on to do little things each day to help the team win. If he just sticks to that method of going pitch to pitch and trying to help out the team each day and do little things to win ballgames, that's all you've got to do."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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