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Youkilis swinging hot bat

He's comfortable again at the plate

CLEVELAND - It demands a look. And a second look. And perhaps even a third. When 1.364 pops up in the on-base plus slugging category for the American League Championship Series, it brings to mind a true middle-of-the-order hitter. It brings to mind Manny Ramírez (a gaudy 1.491), or David Ortiz (1.225). But, no, that number belongs to Kevin Youkilis, who has rather quietly smashed Cleveland pitching, especially last night in support of the Red Sox' series comeback.

With a home run, a triple, and a bases-loaded walk, Youkilis did more than his part in bringing the Red Sox back to Boston for Game 6, driving in three runs on two hits, scoring two runs, and inflating his batting average in the ALCS to .421.

Youkilis had already started one game with a home run - the opener of the AL Division Series, spurring the Red Sox to a dominating three-game sweep of the Angels. That was his first career postseason hit. Since then, he has hit two more homers, beginning the game with another bang last night. His solo blast onto the plaza area in left field started the Red Sox off as they brought the Indians back to Fenway with a resounding - and, for Cleveland, deflating - 7-1 win at Jacobs Field.

"I think getting ahead was a huge factor for us in this game," Youkilis said. "I think getting the confidence in all the players, getting that first run ahead is huge for this team, knowing that Josh Beckett's on the mound. You know that maybe that one run will be all we need in the game. I think a lot of guys were pretty pumped up to get on top. It definitely eases a lot of people's minds."

As for his triple, the ball appeared catchable. And it would have been had center fielder Grady Sizemore not slowed as he neared right fielder Franklin Gutierrez halfway between their posts in the outfield. After the hesitation, Sizemore was forced to dive, and the ball glanced off his glove, allowing the less than fleet first baseman to pull into third having extended the lead to 3-1 in the seventh.

"They got a little bit in between," Cleveland manager Eric Wedge said. "I think there was some eye contact. Usually when there's some eye contact, you're in trouble."

Though Dustin Pedroia was struggling in the leadoff spot until his two hits and a walk last night, Youkilis had certainly done his job from the No. 2 slot, ahead of the big guns. In Game 4, Youkilis started the trio of consecutive home runs that included Ortiz and Ramírez. Which, though it didn't bring the Red Sox back, gave an indication that their bats were still potent. Including Youkilis's.

This, of course, is the same Kevin Youkilis who began striking out in waves at the end of the season. Starting Sept. 2, Youkilis struck out in 19 of his final 58 at-bats, nearly one-third of the time. He also finished the season coming off a right wrist injury, the result of being struck by a Chien-Ming Wang pitch.

"The health reason was definitely, it was tough," Youkilis said. "My whole entire wrist and hand weren't feeling 100 percent. When I hit, I'm more of a handsy hitter. I try to use more hands than body a lot of times. It was tough just to get the swing back and get the feel of facing live pitching again. When you're out over a week, it's very tough to go out there and hit against live pitching, and timing, and feeling comfortable at the plate.

"Luckily, I've gone up there every at-bat [in the playoffs] and just felt comfortable in the box."

With the layoff and the advent of the postseason, those injuries seemed to disappear. Feeling and looking like his normal self, Youkilis has duplicated some of his impressive numbers from the first half of the season, the .328 batting average before the All-Star break as opposed to the .238 after it.

"I think some of the aches and pains go away," manager Terry Francona said of reaching the postseason. "Youk has really taken some good swings, had some real good at-bats. I think the way Youk plays, he can somewhat wear down at times. Maybe the wrist injury when he got hit, maybe it's a blessing in disguise after it's all said and done."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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