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ON BASEBALL

It doesn't look like a short stop

Alex Gonzalez, who is batting just .184, takes off his helmet and heads back to the dugout after another failed at-bat, a pop out to shortstop in the sixth inning.
Alex Gonzalez, who is batting just .184, takes off his helmet and heads back to the dugout after another failed at-bat, a pop out to shortstop in the sixth inning. (Globe Staff Photo / Jim Davis)

Alex Gonzalez can keep his job. For how long is up to him.

It's not to the point of no return, as it apparently was with backup catcher Josh Bard, who couldn't catch Tim Wakefield's knuckleball, forcing Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein to bring back Doug Mirabelli in a trade with San Diego. But it's a lesson for anyone in a vital role on this team.

Epstein will be patient, but he won't stick with something that's not working and shows little promise of working.

Gonzalez, the former Marlins shortstop, signed a one-year, $3 million deal in the offseason after the Sox traded Edgar Renteria to Atlanta.

Renteria, who had 30 errors and hit .276 with 70 RBIs last season, has gotten off to a fast start with the Braves, hitting .358 with a season-opening 19-game hitting streak. But there are some players who just play better in one league than the other, and Renteria is clearly one of them.

He never adapted to the American League style, or, more importantly, the Boston style. He is a quiet guy who likes playing without a lot of fanfare. Definitely not a Boston guy. He even complained about Dave Mellor's stellar infield on his way out the door.

St. Louis manager Tony La Russa pegged Renteria when the shortstop spurned the Cardinals for the Sox, saying Renteria might have trouble adapting to Boston, and he did. And Renteria says he's much happier playing with the Braves, where the fan base is less passionate and doesn't hinge on every hit, error, or loss.

The moral of the story is the Sox have the resources to fix their mistakes, and they'll do so at any moment if they have to.

''There's going to be a hot streak ahead for Alex, and if I didn't wait for that, I wouldn't be fair to Alex or to this team," Sox manager Terry Francona said yesterday. ''There might be an enormous clamoring to do something, but Alex is our guy."

Francona would not offer a do-or-die date.

But as Gonzalez's former Marlins teammate, Mike Lowell, pointed out, ''He can be a force at the bottom of the order when he's hot. And he does get hot."

Gonzalez has come as advertised defensively, but the promise of a little power and an occasional hot streak hasn't happened. His failure to lay down a bunt in the eighth inning of Wednesday night's 7-6 loss to the Blue Jays was his chance to contribute with the bat. The Sox had runners at first and second and nobody out in a 6-6 game. Gonzalez wound up popping up on the bunt attempt and the Sox didn't score.

''I was trying to be too perfect," Gonzalez said. ''I was trying to get it down third base because I saw the first baseman coming in and third baseman out. It was a big situation. If I get it down, maybe we win the game."

Gonzalez is tough on himself, but when you're hitting .184, you've got to contribute any way possible.

Gonzalez's struggles are even more glaring because his middle infield partner, Mark Loretta, has also started poorly. Loretta is hitting .217 after last night's 2 for 4, and came in mired in a 16-for-95 (.168) funk before his double in Boston's five-run first inning. But the Sox seem to have a longer leash on Loretta, who is a proven hitter (a career .301 before the season started). There's more concern about Gonzalez.

''I'm still trying to get to know Alex," said Sox hitting coach Ron Jackson last night. ''I'm trying to get him to make a couple of small adjustments, but he's been reluctant to try. Until he tries something else, it's going to be hard to work out of it. I know with Loretta, he's been in the league a long time and he's a proven hitter. He's going to get hot. It's just a matter of time. With both of them, they're playing good defense and they're helping us that way, but we sure want to get them going."

Lowell said he thinks Gonzalez is ''just anxious to perform and show everyone he can be an offensive player. He's probably pressing, trying too hard."

Here are some of the Sox' options:

1) Dustin Pedroia -- He's played 10 games at shortstop and five at second base for Pawtucket, and is coming off a shoulder injury in spring training that impeded his chance to challenge for the shortstop job. He was hitting .242 with one homer and five RBIs at Pawtucket.

2) Alex Cora -- This is the in-house choice and a player Francona has a lot of faith in. Cora is hitting .217 with three RBIs in 23 at-bats, but can he play shortstop every day? Probably not.

3) Cesar Izturis, Dodgers -- This is a down-the-road option. There's no room with starter Rafael Furcal raking in $13 million. A former Gold Glover, Izturis has started the season on the disabled list after shoulder surgery. He's targeting mid-June as a return. The Dodgers might change his position, but they'd likely entertain offers. Izturis might not be a huge upgrade over Gonzalez at the plate, and he's owed $7.6 million in salary over the next two years and $5.85 million in an '08 option year.

An ideal situation is for Gonzalez to pick it up, Loretta to get hot, and Coco Crisp to return and add some spark to the lineup. For now, the Sox will allow Gonzalez to adjust to AL pitching, where he'll see a steady diet of offspeed pitches.

He has the chance to turn it around on his own, but he must know that Francona and Epstein aren't going to wait forever. They didn't with Bard.

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