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He's been money

Good at-bats key for Youkilis

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / October 26, 2007

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Kevin Youkilis enters Game 3 of the World Series with an OPS - that's on-base percentage plus slugging percentage - of 1.254. That's positively Ruthian. Or Bonds-like. (Presumably, their names have some resonance.)

Starting with Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, his numbers have been surreal. In the five Red Sox victories that got them through the series with the Indians and the 2-0 World Series lead against the Colorado Rockies, Youkilis was 10 for 21 with 9 runs, 7 RBIs, 3 doubles, a triple, 2 home runs, and 5 walks. Did somebody say "table-setter"?

"I've got to go up there, have a good at-bat, and get on base for David [Ortiz] and Manny [Ramírez]," Youkilis said following Wednesday night's two-double, one-walk, three-run performance. That sounds simple enough.

As hot as Youkilis is, there is a chance he might be forced to the bench when the Series shifts to Coors Field tomorrow night. There is, of course, no designated hitter in the National League and there is no way Terry Francona will leave a viable Ortiz out of the lineup. But there is only one place for Ortiz to play, and that is first base. Youkilis is Boston's everyday first baseman.

Youkilis did come up as a third baseman. Francona could always remove Mike Lowell and replace him with Youkilis. Then he'd be depriving himself of a 120-RBI man who is a wonderful fielder. With Ortiz at first and Youkilis at third, Francona would be weakening the team defensively at two positions.

Francona isn't really thrilled about discussing this DH thing in advance. "When it really comes down to the reality of it," Francona said, "two out of the three play, and it's really disappointing because we like when all three of them play. They've all been mainstays in our lineup. They all do different things. There's going to be some things we have to think about that we don't know yet, and it's no big secret because we're not there."

It will be the most difficult decision any American League manager has had to make in the 34-year history of the DH, but this is not something anyone would have thought would be that big a deal, say, a month ago.

A month ago, Youkilis was, for the second straight year, a player in second-half decline, and an injured player at that. After hitting .328 prior to the All-Star Game, Youkilis hit just .238 in 68 games after the break. He was also striking out at a disturbing rate. It was a basic replay of his 2006 season, when he hit .297 before the All-Star break and .258 afterward.

When his production drooped for the second time, the natural assumption was that the guy just wears out in the course of the Big 162. But then a pitch from New York's Chien-Ming Wang that hit Youkilis in the right wrist may have changed everything.

Youkilis missed seven games. Now he's pounding the baseball. Hmmm.

"Last year," said Francona, "there was a chance that it was [because it was] his first full year in the major leagues, which happens to a lot of guys. This year I think sometimes the way he beats himself up can lead to him - I don't know if wearing down is the right word - but he takes every at-bat as if it's his last at-bat. That's part of the reason he's good.

"Then he got hit in the wrist," Francona continued, "and it was a forced rest. I don't think his wrist felt good. I think it was great for his body. He comes back now, he's got a lot of bat speed. He's having terrific at-bats."

Having good at-bats is what he's always been known for. In last night's 2-1 win, he twice worked two-out walks, in the third and sixth, to put two runners on for Ortiz. Anyone who had read Michael Lewis's book "Moneyball" had an image of Kevin Youkilis before ever laying eyes on him. The Oakland A's brass were salivating over Youkilis from afar because of his above-average patience and judgment at the plate.

It all turned out to be true. Youkilis does possess extraordinary judgment. He led American League batters in 2006 by seeing 4.42 pitches per at-bat and ranked fifth this year with 4.27.

But watching balls go by does not a quality batsman make. It does become necessary to swing every now and then, and that's where the Youkilis debate begins. Just how effective a hitter is he? Where does he belong in the order? More specifically, does he possess the kind of raw power many managers seek from a first baseman?

With 37 career regular-season home runs in 1,384 at-bats, he is not a Big Bopper. But he's a guy who can hit one out. Witness his four postseason homers this month. He's more of a line-drive singles and doubles hitter. He doesn't project to be a gaudy slugging percentage guy. His two full-season percentages have been .429 and .453, or just about combined what he's been slugging in the 2007 postseason.

The truth is that nobody's as good as Kevin Youkilis appears to be right now, but the flip side is that somebody has put up those numbers, and that somebody is Youkilis. Josh Beckett was (rightfully) named Most Valuable Player of the ALCS, but if someone had been inclined to select a position player, Youkilis would have been a worthy choice.

This is before discussing his fielding. Youkilis has turned himself into a Gold Glove-level fielder, making every play a first baseman is supposed to make - and some most don't even consider. In case you haven't heard, he did not make an error during the regular season. "Sometimes numbers can be a little bit deceiving," Francona notes. "But he doesn't try not to make a play. You see, sometimes first basemen are a little bit stationary and make errors. He tries not to make errors."

"Kevin has been unbelievable," adds teammate Mike Lowell. "I think it's an easier transition from third to first than the other way around, but you don't always see guys that have the range he has at first. The stats show he hasn't made an error all year. He's been a huge asset for us defensively."

You've got a Gold Glove first baseman. You've got a guy swinging the bat better than he has at any time in his major league career, putting up laughably incomprehensible numbers, and doing it in the biggest showcase his sport has to offer.

If you can put a guy like this on the bench, you must have yourself a pretty good baseball team.

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