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BOB RYAN

Valuable Cora continues to be put to good use

NEW YORK -- Is it time to stir up a second base controversy?

No, no, please no, said Alex Cora, who had a two-run homer, a run-scoring infield out, and a triple that came within 2 feet of being a homer during yesterday's 7-4 Red Sox conquest of the Yankees.

"Not at all," he protested when asked if he thought he should be starting over the struggling Dustin Pedroia. "I don't make decisions. You go in, see your name on the card, and go do your best."

Cora's best is always pretty good, but lately his best has been superb. This was the third time he's had a direct hand in winning a game in a 10-day stretch that began with the game-winning triple in Toronto April 19, continued with the game-winning base hit off Mariano Rivera the following night, and then rolled merrily along with yesterday's scintillating performance in Yankee Stadium.

Perhaps playing Cora every day would overexpose him, but if Pedroia doesn't start hitting soon, manager Terry Francona will be left with no choice. Right now there is a Grand Canyon gulf between the play of the 31-year-old 10-year vet and the 23-year-old rookie, who is hitting .188 in his first 144 major league at-bats.

Understand that Cora isn't saying he doesn't want to play. Of course, he wants to play. "You have to feel that way," he explained. "You feel you're a starter who isn't playing. We've got four of them: Doug [Mirabelli], Eric [Hinske], Wily Mo [Peña], and me. You come to the park thinking you're going to play. You've got to keep that edge."

But he knows the deal. He signed a two-year contract with the Red Sox to be a utilityman. He gives Francona insurance at second, short, and third base defensively, and he gives the skipper great comfort as a lefthanded bat in any situation. And not just Francona.

"Smart guy," declared designated hitter David Ortiz. "He knows what he's doing all the time. I'm tellin' ya, that's what it takes to have a good team. When you have someone who doesn't play every day come out and play like this. I don't know how they do it. Alex is the smartest player I've seen in a long time -- with the glove and with the bat."

"He's a baseball player," said catcher Jason Varitek. "We've always known that. His wits on the field are phenomenal. Even if he doesn't hit, there isn't a situation that doesn't go by that he's not aware of."

So it was that when Cora came up in the third with Coco Crisp on via a leadoff triple to the gap in right-center, his teammates already had put the run up in their minds. No way Cora isn't going to get the job done, they figured. After nearly finding the gap between third baseman Alex Rodriguez and the third base bag with one Chien-Mien Wang offering, he chose another on the inside half of the plate and delivered the RBI grounder to short. Piece o' cake, you know.

Crisp was on first base after being hit by a Wang pitch in the fifth when Cora came up again. Wang got the ball up and out over the plate and Cora, who is in more of an attack mode at the plate this year, turned on it, driving the ball over the fence in right for his second homer of the year. You'd have to say it was a pretty timely hit, since it gave the Sox a nonrefundable 4-3 lead.

There was one out and no one on in the seventh when reliever Scott Proctor got one into the Cora wheelhouse, and again the veteran gave it a ride, sending one to deep right that hit the fence just over the leap of Bobby Abreu. Julio Lugo brought Cora home with a sacrifice fly.

It was mandatory to ask Cora if he happened to know he had been a career 0 for 14 at Yankee Stadium before yesterday's game.

"I found out before the game," he said. "But I only had one start here before today. Most of those at-bats were in the late innings, in the shadows."

The power display -- he could not recall if he ever had knocked out a homer and a triple in the same game -- made for good conversation in the press box and the dugout, but it certainly didn't go to Cora's head.

He's not trying to out-Manny Manny Ramírez (who needed an eighth-inning homer to move ahead of Cora's 2007 total); he's just trying to drive the ball. Unless he isn't.

"I'm in there to do the other things," he pointed out. "The long ball is the icing on the cake. I guarantee you if you ask Tito, he will like better what I did with the man on third. Get the man in, then go sit down."

In a sincere attempt to be the kind of dedicated, professional reporters Curt Schilling says we should be, we already had asked his manager to discuss Cora's range of skill on this occasion.

"That's why he's here," agreed the skipper. "Actually, I enjoy talking about Cora, and today you want to because he hit the ball out of the park, because he's just a good ballplayer. He's always in the right place. You knew he would get that ball down and bring in the run."

Cora is in a good place. He has been a regular, you know. He had 405 at-bats in 2001, 477 at-bats in 2003, and 405 at-bats in 2004, all with the Dodgers. But that was then. In the here and now, his job, until further notice or until Pedroia bids adieu to the Mendoza Line, is to be ready, to play sound defense wherever Francona puts him in, and to produce his share of quality at-bats. His job is to be the consummate role player, and right now you'd have to say his April rating has been A-plus.

"Alex is so valuable," said winning pitcher Julian Tavarez, the primary beneficiary of Cora's offensive contribution. "We all love him. He's always ready to play. He does everything, that guy."

Will his name be on the lineup card tomorrow night? Only Tito knows. But Alex Cora will be ready to play. That's beyond a mortal lock.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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