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Bad bat, not back, is Drew's problem

Red Sox reliever Joel Piñeiro was sitting in the bullpen in the third inning when he arose to follow the track of Brandon Inge's long drive toward right field.

The next thing he heard was a loud thump against the fence, and then the ball landing in the bullpen for a home run.

"It was the sound of J.D.'s body," Piñeiro said. "He hit that sign [on the wall] with the middle of his back. He hit it hard. You could hear it.

"He just kind of crumbled to the ground, and he's down there and we were all hoping he was OK. He kept telling us, 'Just give me a second, give me a second.' Then he got up and continued playing. I know he came out later, but I'm just shocked he didn't get hurt real bad."

You can't accuse J.D. Drew of lacking toughness on that one.

He showed toughness staying in last night's 7-2 loss for four more innings, until he apparently stiffened. He also has a contusion on his lower back and likely won't feel so swell this morning.

Drew has been on the disabled list seven times in his career, but the last thing he wanted to do was perpetuate that image of fragility when he came to Boston. The bigger story is his horrible start in a Red Sox uniform.

The I-told-you-sos -- the skeptics who questioned the $70 million outlay for Drew because of his injury history -- are probably having a field day.

His deal, in fact, was hung up for weeks because the Sox medical staff had concerns about something on the MRI of his right shoulder.

Some felt his injuries had diminished his power and his throwing arm, and the Sox eventually had language put in the contract that protected them if Drew went on the disabled list for reasons related to the specific aspect of the shoulder.

After last night's loss, manager Terry Francona said, "His back is a little sore. You guys saw it -- he went up and hit the top of the wall with the base of his back. That part is not padded. I think he actually hit his elbow, too.

"His lower back just got tight and tighter as the game progressed. We'd much rather be safe than sorry. We will evaluate him tomorrow."

Drew had singled in Boston's first run in the first inning, a rare productive moment for the player the Sox had eyed for a few years to replace dirt dog Trot Nixon, who himself had back ailments that contributed to his expendability.

Nixon, who signed with Cleveland, is hitting .287 with 2 homers and 16 RBIs, including .233 vs. lefthanded pitchers. Drew is hitting .250 with 2 homers and 13 RBIs, including .222 vs. lefties.

If the Red Sox had started off worse this season, Drew's performance would stick out like the red seat above him in right field. But they have the best record in baseball, so Drew's struggles have gotten little attention. Francona has stuck with him every step of the way.

After hitting safely in his first nine games at a .419 clip (13 for 31), Drew has only 12 hits in his last 72 at-bats over 20 games.

It is his first go-around in the American League, where the pitching is a little different. Many longtime National Leaguers have taken time to adjust. Edgar Renteria had a tough time with it when he was with Boston; in spring training this year, he told this reporter, "It's different. It's really different. I would have needed a couple of years there."

But Mike Lowell's acclimation was much smoother; he actually resurrected his career in Boston.

Maybe it's as simple as Drew getting used to pitchers he hasn't seen much of. Maybe the pressure of the enormous contract has weighed on him.

Defensively, he has also made three errors after making five all of last season.

"It looks as though he's really pressing at times," said a scout who has seen Drew a lot this season. "He's almost too patient at times, where there's a good pitch to hit and he takes it. That's not unlike the way he's been throughout his career, but when he's hot, he drives those pitches the other way.

"He should be a hell of a Fenway hitter, but right now he's not that good anywhere. I suppose there's an adjustment to American League pitching. But pitching is pitching and hitting is hitting. He's just not in a good way right now, and the only way to come out of it is keep sticking him out there and let him hit his way out."

Drew's critics warned that there will be times when his overall game will not be inspiring, but at the end of the year his statistics will be competitive with those of the other No. 5 hitters around baseball. They also said that when he's in a good stretch, he will impress you with his skills. All of that has been true so far.

The one reason he can relax a bit and take a deep breath is that his team is very good. The Sox do not need him to be the guy to carry the lineup. But at some point, the real J.D. Drew will have to stand up and produce like a $14-million-a-year player.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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