DETROIT - How comfortable is Kevin Youkilis here?
At this rate, he'll soon be driving a Pontiac, snarfing Little Caesars pizza, sitting center ice at Red Wings games, and taking his vacations on Mackinac Island. Ernie Harwell will be his favorite radio announcer, Rasheed Wallace his main man on the Pistons, and Eminem will be filling up his iPod.
If there was one Red Sox player who should be heartbroken the team won't be coming back here this season - barring a visit in October that seems improbable given the current state of the underachieving Tigers (15-21) - it is Youkilis. The goateed one hit his fourth home run here in four games, a two-run shot, that propelled the Red Sox to a 5-1 win over the Tigers and gave them three wins over the outgunned Tabbies.
The man previously known for his on-base percentage and errorless play is now putting balls in the seats at a rate equal to the team's master blasters, David Ortiz and Manny Ramírez, all of whom have seven home runs. Which persona does he prefer?
"Depends on what you're trying to do," said Youkilis, who still holds the record for most career home runs at the University of Cincinnati (53 in four years, a season-best 19 in 2000). "If you're looking to get paid, you hit more home runs.
"I just play. I just try to get hits. It's not like I'm trying to hit home runs, trying to do this or that. I'm just trying to take a good swing at the ball. It's just happening."
Tigers manager Jim Leyland last night sat slumping slugger Gary Sheffield and the Tigers managed six hits, all singles, off Josh Beckett in seven innings.
Sox manager Terry Francona sat Ramírez, who on Tuesday night had become just the 13th visiting player to hit a ball over the center-field fence here, and Youkilis, batting cleanup, hit a home run. Sunday, when Francona gave his other big bopper, Ortiz, a day off, Youkilis batted third and hit a home run then, too. That one came in Fenway, which means Youkilis has five home runs in his last five games.
When Mike Lowell said earlier in the week that Youkilis might hit more home runs than he has in the past - he hit a career-best 16 last season - Francona tried to pooh-pooh the notion.
"My point is, hitters go through periods," said Francona, whose team has now won 8 of its last 10 and heads for Minnesota for four against the Twins. "And then you have guys like David and Manny, who have gone through years. I don't want Youks to say, 'I'm going to try to do this because the Red Sox want me to do this.'
"He's a good hitter. We already appreciate his approach. As he grows into a veteran, where that takes him, if he keeps this approach, we'll be happy wherever he goes."
Youkilis has 10 hits in his last six games. All but one of those hits has gone for extra bases. He has four doubles to go along with the home runs, and he has knocked in a dozen runs.
But the most startling aspect of his heavy hitting is how much of it has occurred here, a place that when it first opened was called "
Yet Youkilis hits here like it's a phone booth. Take a tour of all the parks Youkilis has visited as a Red Sox, and you won't find any in which he has hit more than two home runs. Except Comerica. Here, he now has eight. Both of his two-homer games, one Wednesday night and the other in 2004, came in Comerica.
"When we've come here, maybe I've had the luxury of swinging the bat good at the time," he said. "There's no explanation of why I swing the bat well here. I've just had success here. I'm glad they moved the fences in. I heard it was a joke."
Last night's home run, which came in the fifth inning off Justin Verlander (1-6) after the Tigers had drawn to within 3-1, may have required the least biceps popping. It was a high fly that just missed the glove of left fielder Matt Joyce, who earlier in the inning had stolen a hit from Dustin Pedroia with a diving catch. But it had the desired effect, giving Beckett a four-run cushion that did not expand, the Sox leaving seven runners on base over the next three innings.
"He's playing good ball," Pedroia said of Youkilis. "He's making our lineup real explosive, and [that] means we're not putting everything on Manny, David, and Mike [Lowell]. He's special. He doesn't care where he plays. He just does whatever the team wants."
Beckett (4-2), making his first career start here, did not walk a batter and struck out eight in seven innings. His strikeout of Brandon Inge, on a 93-mile-per-hour fastball, was the 1,000th strikeout of his career, making him one of 13 active pitchers this decade to reach 1,000 by his 28th birthday (Beckett turns 28 Thursday).
Beckett did hit a man, the second batter he faced - Placido Polanco, who the night before had collected five hits and knocked in the winning run with a broken-bat single off Jonathan Papelbon. Beckett left Polanco's wood intact, but bruised his left hand with a pitch high and tight. It was his first hit batsman of the season.
Let's just say Beckett looked more at ease than the Tigers did the rest of the night. Magglio Ordonez singled Polanco to third, but Miguel Cabrera, an old Beckett teammate in Florida, whiffed on three pitches.
Singles by Polanco and Carlos Guillen put runners on the corners with two outs in the third; Ordonez, first-pitch swinging, popped to second. Two-out singles by Marcus Thames, Brandon Inge, and Ramon Santiago, the bottom three hitters in the Tigers' order, brought home a run in the fourth and prompted a visit from pitching coach John Farrell. Beckett struck out Curtis Granderson, one of four times Granderson went down swinging last night, one of seven times he did over the last two games.
Granderson became the first of 15 Tigers to go down in order. Beckett departed after the seventh. Craig Hansen pitched a 1-2-3 eighth. Manny Delcarmen retired the first two batters in the ninth before Thames singled. Inge flied to Coco Crisp in center to end it.
The Sox had taken a 3-0 lead in the second on four singles, including a two-run single by Jason Varitek and Jacoby Ellsbury's sacrifice fly. And so, barely over a week into May, the Sox are through with the Tigers, having won five of seven.
"That's OK," Francona said, mindful that the Tigers may yet hit their stride. "That's all right."