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Jackie MacMullan

Despite his struggles, Pedroia doesn't feel lowly at the top

CLEVELAND - Dustin Pedroia bounded into the Red Sox clubhouse yesterday afternoon in the same manner he has since he made the big league club last year: head high, eyes alert, swagger intact.

You would never know that after four games of the American League Championship Series against the Cleveland Indians, he was batting just .188 with no RBIs, one walk, and five strikeouts. Even in the face of his playoff struggles, the rookie is walking the walk.

"Sometimes the numbers don't tell you everything," said veteran Red Sox infielder Alex Cora. "He had three really good at-bats [Tuesday]. Even though he only had one hit, it might have been his best game.

"Then you turn on the TV and everyone is talking about what he's not doing and what he should be doing.

"It might affect some players, but Dustin is fine. He's got his ugly green shirt and his ugly white-on shoes today. That's a good sign."

Cora is right about one thing: Although Pedroia's average doesn't reflect it, he is swinging the bat well. In his first crack at Indians starter Paul Byrd in Game 4 Tuesday, he stroked a ball down the third base line that would have been a hit, but Casey Blake made a nifty play to snag it. Pedroia followed with a ground single in the third inning, grounded out to short in the fifth, then screamed a line drive in the seventh that appeared headed for right field before Asdrubal Cabrera leaped and snared it.

"It was a nice play," Pedroia said. "I'm sure his arm is sore from the whiplash he got from catching it. I wish he was a little shorter."

While some members of the Red Sox continue to gnash their teeth over their hitting woes, the rookie second baseman has convinced himself to move on. Yesterday he arrived at the park just after noon, sat down and ate a bowl of Apple Jacks, then delighted in beating Eric Hinske in an outdated video football game before calmly addressing his hitting slump.

"I know I'm swinging the bat well," Pedroia said. "In Game 1, I almost took C.C. [Sabathia's] head off with a line drive. If that one gets through, and a couple from the other night, then I'm hitting .400 and I'm great."

It's that kind of positive self-talk that has gotten the diminutive Pedroia to the major leagues in the first place.

Last week, after he was crushed in a pair of cribbage games by Terry Francona in the manager's office, he walked back dejectedly to his locker. Told Pedroia had his head down from getting beat, Francona cracked, "That won't last long."

He was correct. Pedroia was at his manager's door the following day with a new deck of cards and a new strategy on how to exact some revenge.

If only all the Sox players could approach their disappointments in the same manner. Boston's front office should require Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was in a near catatonic state after lasting just 4 2/3 innings in Game 3, to subscribe to Pedroia's theory on baseball: I think; therefore, I'm good. While they're at it, they should encourage Coco Crisp, who is also batting .188 with no RBIs and declined to attend the optional workout yesterday, to spend a little time building self-esteem with the kid.

"Hey, I have to be this way," Pedroia shrugged. "I'm 5 foot 2, 115 pounds. Any edge I can get, I got to use it. "

Francona conceded in the AL Division Series against the Angels, when Pedroia hit just .154 with one walk and one RBI, that his leadoff hitter may have been pressing a bit. Pedroia has shown some signs of that in this series, too, but if there has been any discussion about moving him down in the order to take some heat off him, it has been behind closed doors.

Besides, pressing and losing confidence are two entirely different issues.

"His [attitude] makes my job easier," said hitting coach Dave Magadan. "He doesn't really ever get down on himself. He's got a lot of energy and his confidence radiates throughout the clubhouse. He makes everyone else feel at ease.

"It's rare to find that in someone so young."

Magadan and Pedroia have studied film of his recent at-bats and have talked about concentrating on hitting the ball the other way against the Cleveland pitchers, who have consistently worked him down and in.

"There were a couple of balls he hit sharply between first and second [Tuesday] night," Magadan said. "When he's doing that, that's when he has most of his success.

"He's well on his way to turning things around. I'm not worried at all about him."

Pedroia is irked by calls for Francona to shake up the lineup with his club down, 3-1, in the best-of-seven series. He said he believes the Red Sox should stand pat, and wants and expects to stay right where he is - leading off.

"Anybody can second-guess," he said. "We've gone through 162 games with the same guys. We got ourselves here, and now you're going to change who got us here? That's ridiculous."

He recognizes the team hasn't been hitting, but bristles when it's suggested that his club needs a spark to jump-start its chances.

"If you need that, then go drink a Red Bull," he said. "We don't have time for that crap."

With that, the kid turned to finish dressing for batting practice.

"Got to get some swings in," he said. "The next game could be the one where the hits start dropping."

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at macmullan@globe.com.

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