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Mueller again sporting healthy batting average

Patience was key after knee surgery

Any chance Bill Mueller had of winning a second straight batting title was lost when he began the season with an injured right knee. But he steadily has positioned himself to take a run at .300, improving his average from .239 while he tried to play through his injury in early May to .282 entering the final 20 games. Mueller at least has a shot to match his career average of .292.

The Sox also have seen a gradual improvement in Mueller's defense since he came back July 2 from arthroscopic knee surgery.

"He's making plays all over the place," manager Terry Francona said. "I think part of it is that he's a little more comfortable since coming back from having his knee done. I think he feels good physically. He's a good player, and you put [Orlando Cabrera] next to him with a ton of range and Billy looks even better."

Mueller, 33, said he learned a valuable lesson from a far more serious injury he suffered with the Cubs in 2001. Sliding into exposed metal on a wall along the third base line at Busch Stadium in St. Louis as he chased a foul ball, he suffered an open fracture of his left kneecap. He underwent surgery the same day and tried to return three months later, only to wind up needing a second surgery.

"I'm fortunate enough that I learned a great deal from that," said Mueller. "The first time, I put so much pressure on myself trying to be like I was before the injury. You start to bury yourself because you get frustrated that you're not at the top of your game. Through that experience, I knew the second time around it was just going to be a gradual climb. You have to be patient because it takes time to catch back up, if you can catch up. You've got to be in baseball shape, and that's hard to do in five weeks."

Mueller hit .262 before the May 28 surgery and since has hit .326, which he hit last year to win the batting crown.

"Anytime you get stopped in the middle of the season, it's maddening," he said. "You're playing catch-up from there on out."

Mueller has been impressed by players such as Derek Jeter and Trot Nixon who return from injuries and appear to fully regain their baseball skills.

"When I see Trot having success and playing as good as he does after missing the time he did, that's a great credit to him," Mueller said. "That's just unbelievable how gifted he is at this game to be able to do that."

Mueller has a good chance to rebound from a recent slump (he has hit .189 in September) since the Sox play 12 of their last 20 against the Yankees and Devil Rays. A Yankee slayer, Mueller has hit .412 with 4 homers and 11 RBIs in nine games against the Bronx Bombers and helped turn around Boston's season with his walkoff homer July 24 at Fenway off Mariano Rivera. He has hit .405 against the Devil Rays.

Keen observer
With Mueller playing regularly, rookie Kevin Youkilis has gone from filling in admirably at third base to gaining experience on the bench. Youkilis, who was AL Rookie of the Month in May, has started one game and gone 0 for 4 with a walk since he returned from the disabled list Sept. 1. "I played a lot before, and now the team's rolling, so I sit back and watch these guys and learn a lot," he said. "It's pretty exciting to come out here every day and watch such a tight race. It's been a wild ride." . . . Jason Varitek and Doug Mirabelli may have their hands full trying to contain opposing runners in the final 20 games. The Devil Rays, Yankees, and Orioles are among the teams that have stolen the most bases against the Sox: Seattle (13), New York (10), Baltimore (10), Tampa Bay (10), and Anaheim (10). Sox catchers have been hampered a bit by Derek Lowe's relatively slow delivery and Tim Wakefield's knuckleball. Of the 97 steals against the Sox, Lowe has allowed 31, tops in the majors, while Wakefield has yielded 26, second in the AL . . . Lowe has posted the most wins (52) in the majors over the last three years, with Oakland's Mark Mulder second with 51, and Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling tied for third with 50 . . . With Lowe and Keith Foulke combining to hold the Mariners to two runs Sunday, the Sox lowered their ERA to 3.99, their lowest mark since July 19 when it was 3.98. The Sox rank second in the league to the Twins (3.96) . . . The league's batting leaders since the All-Star break: Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki (.453), Varitek (.362), and Tampa Bay's Aubrey Huff (.346) . . . After setting a team record last year with 238 home runs, the Sox are four homers shy of hitting 200 in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history . . . Tampa Bay closer Danys Baez has converted 15 straight save chances, the longest active streak in the majors, followed by Foulke with 14 straight . . . Sox coaches Ron Jackson, Lynn Jones, Brad Mills, Euky Rojas, and Dale Sveum will welcome students back to the Trotter Elementary School in Dorchester today and the Tobin Middle School in Roxbury tomorrow. 

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