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BOB RYAN

Looks are important to Youkilis

NEW YORK -- If pitchers don't know it already, they might as well get clued in.

Kevin Youkilis is never going to give away an at-bat.

"Why would anyone do that?" he inquires.

Well, they do. We've all seen guys who, in certain circumstances, put the stamp on the AB and place it in the mailbox. It's only one of 550, you know?

"I don't care if it's 13-1 or 1-1 or what else is going on," vows Youkilis. "I'll be up there trying to get a hit."

But that's all something to watch for in the famed dog days of August and beyond. Back here in the merry month of May, Kevin Youkilis is playing as well as he ever has in a Red Sox uniform. The Red Sox dropped their series opener to the Yankees by a 6-2 score last night, but Youkilis continued his hot hitting with two more doubles, boosting his average to .342.

"I'm feeling good," he was saying before this one started. "I'm just trying to improve, day by day."

Youkilis entered the majors with a reputation as a discerning batter, and he has done nothing to alter his image. He was erroneously dubbed the "Greek God of Walks" by Billy Beane and the boys in Oakland, who were unmindful of the fact that Youkilis is Jewish, not Greek. But their assessment of his batting approach was dead-on. Few players have come into the big leagues during the past three years with a better sense of the strike zone, or what constitutes a professional at-bat, than Kevin Youkilis.

It all seems so logical to him.

"I try not to swing at bad pitches," he shrugs. "It's not good.

"You can't help it sometimes. If a guy throws a great 87-mile-an-hour slider, you can wind up looking bad."

But most guys aren't like Youkilis. They just aren't. The plate discipline that comes so naturally for him is a mystery to countless others.

"I don't really remember what it was like in high school, but this is the way I was in college [University of Cincinnati]," he explains. "As a good hitter in college, I think you learn to have a good approach because very often you won't get pitched to. If you go to some high-powered place, where there are a lot of good hitters, then perhaps it's different.

"Tek [Jason Varitek], Nomar [Garciaparra], and Jay Payton were all together at Georgia Tech. Maybe that's why those guys are the way they are."

Taking the amount of pitches he does is a risk, of course. Yes, you will draw all those bases on balls, but you're also going to get called out when you think you shouldn't.

"That's a risk," he acknowledges, "but you just have to remind yourself that everybody is human. And a lot of times I'll get called out and think it was a bad call until I see the tape and realize it was a good call.

"Here's something else. A lot of times you'll get called out in the first inning on, say, a low ball and then you know that's the way it's going to be for the rest of the game, and you can adjust. Sometimes the umpire will even say something, to let you know."

Youkilis says he has goals.

"To hit .300, and to get two hits in every game," he declares. "If I get two, I want three, and if I get three, I want four, but the goal every night is to get two."

Youkilis had a good year in 2006, finishing seventh in walks and eighth in doubles among American League hitters, but his production was skewed more toward the first half of the season. He had problems with both plantar fasciitis and an abdominal muscle following the All-Star break, and his average tumbled to .279.

But he still fell into the category of one who made productive outs, even as his average was heading downward. For Youkilis finished first in pitches seen per at-bat (4.42) and third in total pitches seen, trailing Grady Sizemore and Bobby Abreu.

The trick this year is to do more with those pitches, and thus far he's done a lot. Through the first 43 games, Youkilis had a very impressive OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .948. He's never been viewed as much of a power hitter, but he came to Yankee Stadium having homered in three of his previous five games. He even hit a Justin Verlander fastball off the back wall in dead center last Tuesday in Fenway, and that's a feat few batters have on their résumé.

He also has been a defensive revelation at first base, which is not his natural position. "I've been able to apply a lot of third base skills to first," he says, making his transition sound a lot easier than it really was.

Used as a leadoff man for most of the '06 season, he scored exactly 100 runs, which is the measure of a skilled man at the top of the order. This year he's mostly batted second, which has been a bonus.

"Hitting ahead of Big Papi, you're going to see some pitches," he acknowledges.

The fact is he is one of Terry Francona's most versatile and useful hitters. First, second, fifth . . . it hardly matters. He's going to give his skipper four or five good at-bats a night.

And he's never, ever going to fritter away one of those precious ABs.

"That could be the difference between your 19th homer or your 20th homer," he reasons. "That could be the difference between your 99th run scored and your 100th run scored. It makes no sense to give away an at-bat."

There it is, all you pitchers. You've been warned.

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

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