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Swinging and missing

Crisp's absence felt in Sox batting order

CLEVELAND -- Sometime after 7 tonight, Coco Crisp should be walking to home plate at Jacobs Field and getting a genuine ovation, as a fan base salutes a former favorite. (How well-liked was he? The Indians sold out the Jake on only six occasions last season. There was the home opener. There was a Saturday in June against intrastate opponent Cincinnati. There were the last three games of the season against Chicago. The only other instance: the August evening when the club handed out 20,000 bobblehead dolls in Crisp's likeness.) After the ovation, he'd go on to reach base, wreak havoc, and pace the Red Sox offense.

But he will not do any of that. Instead, he will miss his 15th game because of a broken knuckle at the base of his left index finger, a setback expected to keep him out of the Boston lineup for approximately three more weeks, according to manager Terry Francona. And, though the Sox open a three-game series here atop the AL East, Crisp's absence is being felt.

With the 26-year-old Crisp, the Sox went 4-1. Without him, they are 8-6. With him atop the lineup, they batted .290. Without him, they have hit .248. With him, they averaged 5.8 runs per game. Without him, they've fallen to 4.36.

Crisp, in five games: .333 (8 for 24), 1 2B, 1 3B, 0 HRs, 0 RBIs, 6 runs, 2 walks, 2 steals, 6 K's, .385 on-base percentage, .458 slugging percentage.

His center field replacements, Adam Stern, Willie Harris, and Dustan Mohr, in 14 games: .170 (9 for 53), 2 2Bs, 0 3Bs, 2 HRs, 7 RBIs, 7 runs, 3 walks, 2 steals, 18 K's, .241 OBP, .333 slugging.

How much has his absence affected the team?

''You know what," Francona said, ''I'm not sure how to gauge it sometimes. Youk has done such a great job in the leadoff spot."

Kevin Youkilis has hit leadoff on 12 occasions, and he has been more than the Sox could ask, batting .327 when hitting atop the order. The issue, it seems, is not what the Sox lose atop the order but what they lose at the bottom of the order, where Youkilis would be (probably batting eighth). The weakening of the bottom of the lineup is what Francona was alluding to following Saturday's 8-1 loss at Toronto when he said, ''When Coco is gone, you have to make things stretch that don't always stretch."

Initially, the Sox hummed along just fine. They won two of three after Crisp went down, improving to 6-2. Stern and Mohr combined to go 4 for 13 (.308) in those three games. Stern accounted for two hits and three RBIs the day after Crisp was injured, keying a 4-1 win. He knocked in another run two days later, in the home opener, a 5-3 win. And then Mohr, in his Sox debut, cranked a two-run homer. In three games they'd knocked in six runs.

In 11 games since then, Stern, Mohr, and Harris (as center fielders) have knocked in one run (a solo homer by Mohr in a loss). They are a combined 5 for 40 (.125) with 5 runs, 3 walks, and 16 strikeouts, for an OBP of .200. The Sox, in those 11 games, are 6-5.

There are less quantifiable ways in which Crisp helps the offense. For example: How many times would a pitcher, concerned that Crisp might steal, lose just enough focus with 2-hole hitter Mark Loretta at the plate to give Loretta a better pitch to hit?

''[With] Coco, I think you saw pitchers throwing over and trying to hold him," Francona said. ''You don't see that happen very often with the Red Sox, and it's kind of nice, taking a pitcher maybe out of his game plan a little bit or making him think about something else, other than the pitch.

''You can't measure how many times a pitcher maybe leaves a fastball over the middle of the plate because he's trying to slide-step."

Loretta was 8 for 17 (.471) before Crisp was hurt. He's 11 for 63 (.175) since. Perhaps losing Crisp has affected Loretta. Perhaps it hasn't.

Or perhaps, as Loretta pointed out, ''It's tough to make a wide, sweeping statement off such a small sample."

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