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ON BASEBALL

Give shortstop a longer look

ARLINGTON, Texas -- A month into the season, this is not what the Red Sox were expecting of their biggest investment of the winter, the $40 million they gave their new shortstop, Edgar Renteria.

He takes a .227 average into Detroit tonight for the start of a four-game series against the Tigers, which ranks him 24th among all major league shortstops with 50 or more at-bats. He's 19th in OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage), 12th in RBIs, is batting just .167 (5 for 30) with runners in scoring position, and his four errors, including the one he made in yesterday's 6-5 win over the Texas Rangers, is a total exceeded by only three other American League shortstops.

For fans spoiled by eight years of watching Nomar Garciaparra's excellence and three months of Orlando Cabrera's circus act, Renteria's introduction to the Sox has been jarring. The early returns suggest that his manager in St. Louis, Tony La Russa, was prescient in suggesting that high-intensity Boston might not be a comfortable fit for a low-key player like Renteria.

But from one end of the Sox clubhouse to the other yesterday afternoon, a sampling of those who either played with Renteria (Kevin Millar), played against him in the National League (Matt Clement, Mike Myers), or have managed with him and against him (Terry Francona), were unanimous in judging Renteria's early struggles a temporary condition.

"I think we've seen bits and pieces of what he can do," said Clement, whose six-inning tightrope walk earned him the win yesterday, "but he's a guy I don't worry about. It absolutely shocked me to death, that ball he missed [a sixth-inning double play ball he booted]. That's just not going to happen. But he also made that unbelievable play [a tough chance in the fourth after a leadoff single by Kevin Mench] that really saved me.

"Edgar is going to be fine. I'm telling you, he's as good an all-around shortstop as anybody I've ever seen. I'll stand by that. You know, there were a couple of guys I wanted a chance to play with when I signed. One was 'Tek [Jason Varitek]. Another was Mike Matheny [the ex-Cardinals catcher who signed with the Giants], and Edgar was one, too. For me, it's exciting that we wound up at the same place, to have someone like that playing behind me."

Clement, like Renteria, is adjusting to playing in a new league, trying to make a good impression on a new set of teammates.

"Obviously [Renteria] hasn't played yet the way he's capable of, and it probably does take time," said Millar, who was Renteria's teammate on the Florida Marlins and played against him when Renteria went to the Cardinals. "A lot of guys need more than 70 at-bats to do it. You'd have to ask Edgar how he's handling the change, but this guy's special. He's a professional who's been through the trenches -- I'm not worried about Edgar."

Myers, who pitched against Renteria, said that with the Cardinals, Renteria frequently was used in hit-and-run situations batting behind Tony Womack, which put pressure on the infielders who had to pinch in, opening the field more for Renteria to punch balls through. "There is an adjustment coming to another league," Myers said, "and there's so many other factors to consider. A lot of guys, when they've just signed the longest contract of their careers, want to be so good right away. He's already had a few clutch hits for us, and it's when you need a clutch hit, that's when he's the biggest pain in the butt to pitch to. That's why I'm glad he's on our side."

Renteria is much more reserved than the chatty Cabrera but does not exhibit the reclusive tendencies that Garciaparra showed at the end of his Sox tenure, usually spending his time before games talking with David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, and batting-practice pitcher Ino Guerrero. He has shown signs of emerging from his slow start. He had three straight two-hit games in mid-April before his average dipped to .201, but has hits in seven of his last eight games (9 for 33, .273), including a single to load the bases in the fifth yesterday, when the Sox scored four times, and a bunt single in the eighth Saturday night, the first by a Sox player this season, which was a catalyst to a three-run rally.

"It's been different," he said of finding his way with the Sox, "but when you're struggling, it doesn't matter if you're here or the National League or Japan."

No, he said, the contract is not a burden. "I'm not that way," he said. "It doesn't matter if you're paying me a dollar, I play the game the same way. The money I don't think about."

Francona said Renteria has been "fighting it a little bit, but there's going to be a point where he's going to pick it up, because he's a great player. A guy like that is going to get to his level . . . that's just the way it is."

Beware of making a hasty judgment, even if Renteria's .228 in April was the fourth-worst month of his career (.200 in September 1998, .214 in April 1997, .218 in June 2001). You could field an all-star team with the good players who struggled in the first month of the season: Aaron "Bleeping" Boone began the day hitting .123 for the Indians, the lowest average among qualifiers in the major leagues. Steve Finley, a big-name free agent signing, was hitting .149 for the Angels. Phillies strongman Jim Thome was batting .203 with a home run. A's superstar Eric Chavez was at .194, Marlins slugger Mike Lowell at .198.

"I know it's going to come," Renteria said. "Sooner or later it's going to come. I'm worried a little bit, because that's not me, you know. That bothers me a little bit. But it will come."

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