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Squaring up, circling bases

With Ortiz out, Drew keeping Red Sox powering ahead

J.D. Drew's homer Sunday gave him eight in 53 games, a much better pace than last season. J.D. Drew's homer Sunday gave him eight in 53 games, a much better pace than last season. (Michael Dwyer/Associated Press)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / June 10, 2008

The seduction has happened before. J.D. Drew becomes what he can be, what he should be, the player for whom the Red Sox paid $70 million over five years. He locks in, looks perfect, as if there were simply no pitch that he could miss, as if he always had been able to drive a fastball out to left field or center field. He becomes J.D. Drew, the player so promising that he was picked twice in the first round of the draft.

But then it all goes away. As fast as Drew has gotten hot, has shown all that talent, he has slowed. The strikeouts come more frequently, or ground out after ground out to the right side. It is, in a word, infuriating.

That was Drew in 2007, a nearly lost year that perked up in September, capped by that grand slam in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series. That hardly has been Drew in 2008.

"He definitely went through periods like this when he was in Atlanta, times when he was in LA," said Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan. "But I tell you what, I've never seen a guy square up as many balls as he's squared up over the last five or six games. It seems like every at-bat he's hitting a bullet somewhere. It's pretty impressive."

But. There seems always to be a pause with Drew, an uncertainty that this time it's real. Can he continue his production? Perhaps not at this level, but at least at a level commensurate with that talent and that contract? Is it time to believe, or will he break hearts again?

Maybe this time it's different. Maybe this time, as Drew works on a power stroke that dried up last season, he can be that No. 5 hitter he was signed to be. Or, for now, the No. 3 hitter.

With four home runs in his last eight games, and two in his last two, Drew now has eight on the season, in just 53 games. It took him until his 126th game of last season, on Sept. 11, before he hit his eighth. He finished the season with 11. It is well within reason to think he will surpass that total by the All-Star break this year.

"I think with his swing, if he stays consistent with his approach, he's going to hit some home runs, sometimes by accident," manager Terry Francona said. "He's kind of got a line-drive stroke, I think we all think that. He'll get under a couple and hit some home runs just because he's a good hitter. He stays in the middle of the field like he's been doing, then he's going to stay on the changeup longer, not roll over.

"Home runs are welcome, [but] I don't know that I'm particularly going to sit here and hang our hat on that with him. If he makes solid contact and stays in the middle of the field, we'll take whatever results are there."

And the results have been there lately.

Over his eight-game hitting streak, which coincides exactly with David Ortiz's absence from the lineup, Drew has put up a .519 average (14 for 27). But it's more than that. He has been hot for nearly three weeks, hitting .400 (22 for 55) over his last 18 games with five home runs and 14 RBIs, pushing his average for the season from .281 to .318.

That's big, especially given what Drew has demonstrated offensively since arriving in Boston. Compare, say, this May with last May. In 2007, Drew hit just .171 with a .315 on-base percentage, grounding into as many double plays (three) as he hit doubles. This season, he hit .296 with a .390 OBP, slugging more than .200 higher.

"I think what J.D.'s going through right now, he's at a comfort level being here in Boston," Magadan said. "He's allowing the ball to travel. When he's doing that, you know it's getting to that area in his swing where he can really drive the ball the other way into the middle of the field with power. We've all seen him hit his home runs to right field. He can launch them, hit them a long way.

"But, for me, when he's driving home runs to the middle of the field and the opposite field, hitting those doubles off the wall, to me that's where his swing needs to be. When he's letting the ball travel like that, his pitch selection is better. He's not chasing the soft stuff down in the zone because he's just seeing the ball better, he's seeing it longer. When he does that, he does what he's doing right now."

Drew also has been tremendous defensively, with a scintillating catch to help out Justin Masterson in Sunday's game, a leaping grab on the warning track that saved at least a run. His prowess in that area led Francona to say, "Maybe it's not a curse, but he glides. He makes it look easy."

He was talking about Drew's defense. But he could have been talking about him offensively - that sweet stroke, the beautiful swing.

So why shouldn't he do this, continue his hot streak through the rest of the season? He has the swing for it.

"Perfect, man," Ortiz said, with just a twinge of envy. "J.D.'s got a perfect swing. He's got one of the best lefthanded swings in the game. J.D.'s swing, there's no way you can throw a fastball by him, that's how perfect it is."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com

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