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BOB RYAN

After rough start, Pedroia dusting the competition

On the 54th day, Dustin batted second.

You sure couldn't say you saw this coming on, say, the 25th day. On the morning of May 2, Dustin Pedroia was hitting .172 and lots of people were of the opinion that it was time for Alex Cora to be the starting second baseman for the Boston Red Sox.

But yesterday Terry Francona posted a Red Sox lineup in which Pedroia was batting second. That's what happens when a guy hits .415 for an entire month, raising his average to .323. With a 3 for 5 yesterday, including an RBI single in the five-run seventh inning of the Sox' 11-6 victory, he is now up to .333.

If ever a guy had a right to gloat, it is Francona. The manager pulled the full Tammy Wynette in April, when his little second sacker was going 5 for 48 in one stretch of 18 games. Day after day, Francona stood by his man, even on days when Cora was doing things like hitting a triple and a homer in the same game at Yankee Stadium.

The kid is our second baseman, he kept saying. The scouts say he'll hit, so he'll hit. Cora is here to back us up at short and second. That's his job. No, I'm not contemplating a switch.

But as April rolled into May, the kid did not hit. And you had to wonder if he ever would hit, since he did not hit when he was called up last September (.191 in 89 at-bats) and he did not hit in Florida, either. Sometimes scouts are wrong.

It now looks as if maybe they weren't wrong, and Francona was wise to believe them. For the past three weeks, no batter, not even Ichiro Suzuki (well, perhaps Kevin Youkilis) has been harder to get out than Pedroia. Facts are facts.

"You want me to say, 'I told you so'?" said Francona. "OK, I told you so. But, no, it was just the right thing to do. We had a young player the organization said can do certain things. We just hadn't seen him do them yet at the major league level. We didn't see it in September, and we didn't see it in spring training. Now he's doing it. For me not to see it would have been a mistake."

At 5 feet 9 inches and a listed 180 pounds, Pedroia sure looks like a second baseman. He was a very good one at Arizona State, where he was a three-time All-Pac-10 selection, the 2003 Pac-10 co-Player of the Year, the 2003 National Defensive Player of the Year, and one of five finalists for the 2004 Golden Spikes Award. In the collegiate world he was a major Somebody, and he was a second-round selection of the Red Sox (their first available selection and No. 65 overall) in the 2004 draft.

In other words, this was no scrappy, overachieving 29th-round pick coming out of nowhere. This was a marquee prospect. And Francona knew that.

"Our expectations were that his gifts -- hand-eye coordination, plate discipline, hands, instincts, confidence, work ethic, guts -- would far all outweigh his physical limitations -- size, speed -- as they did in college and every level of minor league ball," explained general manager Theo Epstein.

Francona also saw the stuff we don't see, such as the hours long before the game working at his craft. That counted for something, too.

"It wasn't a case of a light bulb going off in his head," Francona said. "I think it was the result of a lot of hard work. He struggled, yes, but he didn't put his head down. He was in the cage every day. He put in a lot of long sessions with Mags [hitting coach Dave Magadan]. He got it done in the cage, and then it was a matter of taking it to the field. Eventually, he started getting on top of balls. It wasn't just pushing a button."

He's getting more than just those little-guy hits, too. He's up there to attack baseballs, not caress them. He's got 12 doubles and two homers, and that has given him a robust slugging percentage of .488. No, it's not Jeff Kent, but Jeff Kent could not carry this kid's glove, and that's a fact, too.

If people hadn't yet realized just what Pedroia had become, they learned on the afternoon of May 27. That's when Pedroia battled Texas closer Eric Gagne, he of the ultra heater, for 11 pitches before launching the 12th into the left-field seats for what turned out to be the winning run in a 6-5 Boston victory. Gagne tried everything he could think of to retire the kid, both in repertoire and location, but Pedroia kept spoiling the pitches. It was the at-bat of the year, so far, at least from a Red Sox point of view.

With that at-bat on his résumé, Pedroia is the one who can say, "I told you so."

"When Tito and I met him at the beginning of spring training," said Epstein, "I told him, 'You're our second baseman. It doesn't matter if you're hitting a buck-fifty in May, you're going to be the guy.' He said, 'I appreciate it, but I'm not going to be hitting a buck-fifty in May.'

"Sure enough," laughed Epstein, "he almost was! Tito and the organization did a good job of sticking with him, and he was finally able to relax and be himself."

One of Pedroia's great virtues is that he is very difficult to strike out. He has fanned 93 times in 1,258 professional at-bats. And if you think there is any way to avoid comparing him with a certain fellow member of the Red Sox, forget it. So here goes: Yes, he is the anti-Wily Mo. Whereas Pedroia had struck out once every 13.5 at-bats as a professional, Mr. Peña had gone into yesterday's game having whiffed once every 2.67 times he's been at the plate. Sorry, I couldn't resist.

Pedroia's accomplishments had all come while minding his own business down there at the bottom of the order. He had batted 38 games from the ninth spot and once from the eighth.

But it's all different now. The kid is batting second. Hail to the scouts.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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