Repositioned Youkilis has fit like a glove so far
Kevin Youkilis (right) is content to leave most of the slugging on the team to David Ortiz. (Globe Staff Photo / Jim Davis)
CLEVELAND -- So, can we agree, as the Red Sox arrive here for a three-game set against the Indians, that this first base thing is working out quite nicely with Kevin Youkilis?
Through 19 games, the Sox have made a total of seven errors. That includes two improbable throwing errors in the last three games by third baseman Mike Lowell, who made five errors in all of 2005 for the Marlins and whose track record suggests it may be weeks before he is charged with his next one.
Projected over 162 games, the Sox are on pace to commit 60 errors. That's not going to happen, but clearly the sure hands on this club have a great chance of breaking the team record for fewest errors in a season, 93 in 1988.
And Youkilis, transplanted from one side of the diamond to the other since last season, is more than doing his part. He has yet to commit an error at first base, which is not all that remarkable -- there are 45 big-league first basemen who have no errors, and Youkilis ranks 17th in total chances with 140. But given that it is a new position, and the anecdotal evidence that shows he's handled his share of tough chances -- like digging out Lowell's remarkable, short-hopped throw from a sitting position in Toronto last weekend -- Youkilis's performance deserves plaudits.
J.T. Snow, with his multiple Gold Gloves, still gets called upon as a late-inning defensive replacement, but that seems as much a matter of manager Terry Francona keeping Snow involved than feeling the need for a significant upgrade.
And while Youkilis was unexpectedly given the additional responsibility of batting leadoff, in the wake of Coco Crisp's finger injury, that has not come at the expense of his defense. He came into camp this spring with the idea that he would not abide being called the infield's weakest link.
''It was very important," Youkilis said of his commitment to playing first. ''We have a tremendous infield here. You want to be a part of it, you want to be part of that great infield. You want to have it where every guy out there knows if they make a mistake, you're there to pick them up. That's the biggest thing, to help out your teammates."
But Youkilis, who had played nine games at first base before this season, compared with 88 at third, insisted he isn't surprised at how he's adapted.
''I personally came in thinking, I'd bettered myself at third base and I can better myself at first base," Youkilis said in an interview that will air on NESN's ''Sports Plus" show tomorrow. ''As an infielder, I've always had a lot of confidence in my ability; the biggest thing was going out and proving it.
''I think the offseason, everybody was doubting. I've been doubted my whole career. I've been doubted in high school [about] going to college. I was doubted in college -- 'Oh, this guy can't be drafted, he's not major league material.' I didn't get drafted till the eighth round of my senior year. I've been doubted my whole career."
A chip on his shoulder?
''[The way] I was raised, I think it's part of my heritage that you don't ever doubt yourself," Youkilis said. ''You've got to go out there and just lay it on the line, you've got to go about proving people wrong. I don't thrive on that -- 'I'm going to show you' -- but I want to show people who are doubting that it's going to happen, show that you have the ability."
The plan, of course, when last season ended, was that Youkilis would inherit third base after Bill Mueller was allowed to leave as a free agent. But when the Sox took Lowell as the price of acquiring young ace Josh Beckett, plans shifted, and so did Youkilis.
Doubts undoubtedly will linger, because of the same questions raised at the start of the season: Youkilis doesn't fit the prototype of the slugging first baseman. He's off to a nice start at the plate, batting .318, and with 11 RBIs and 10 runs, he's on pace for 94 RBIs and 85 runs, which for a player in his first full season would be more than adequate.
But he's playing a position occupied by some of the game's biggest bashers: Youkilis has one home run so far; there are a dozen first basemen with four or more, led by Albert Pujols of the Cardinals with 11 and Tigers sensation Chris Shelton with 9. Eleven first basemen are in double figures in extra-base hits; Youkilis has seven. He has a .403 on-base percentage, which is outstanding, but ranks only 15th among first basemen who have played in at least 10 games this season. His .455 slugging percentage ranks him 23d.
It's foolish to read too much into numbers based on such a small sample, but you get the idea. So does Youkilis, but he isn't particularly fazed by the comparisons. Not when the Sox have David Ortiz and Manny Ramírez around to supply the power.
''When you have a DH who hits 47 home runs, I think that's the biggest thing," Youkilis said. ''If you give them offensive production and play great defense, they're not going to look [askance].
''I never really think about it. I basically do what they tell me to do. 'You're out of the game,' all right, I'm out. 'You're in the game, get in there, you're playing third base today.' Just wherever they tell you, go out and do it. That's my philosophy. Until they tell me I'm not going to be the first baseman, I'm just going to keep going over there."
The one thing that has changed for Youkilis, now that he's playing first base every day? He no longer slips under the radar on his forays about town. David Wells's complaint about every fan now having a camera phone? Youkilis knows whereof he speaks.
''I think technology is the root of all evil," he said with a smile. ''There's a lot of stuff that's out there, a lot of stuff on the Internet that's written about you that's untrue. People bring it to your attention all the time.
''You're always looking over your shoulder. I look over my shoulder all the time. It's frustrating. I'm a Midwestern guy. It's definitely tough to get used to celebrity status. In my own mind, I don't feel like a celebrity. I'm not the guy who wants to be the limelight. I don't live my life to see my name in the paper and in photos. I think [playing baseball] is a talent, definitely, a God-given talent, but in Boston you're a celebrity.
''Sometimes you've had a bad day, you're walking down the street, you don't want to be annoyed, you just want to go down the street and have some lunch and come back home. I find myself a lot more staying in my apartment this year."
A whining ballplayer? You've got the wrong guy.
''I'm blessed to play baseball for a living," he said. ''If one of the downfalls is not being able to walk out of my house and get bothered, would you rather be playing every day and playing in Boston, or not playing every day and being in some place like Milwaukee?"
He'll see you tonight, at Jacobs Field.