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Kotsay proving to be perfect fit

By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / September 6, 2008
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ARLINGTON, Texas - Mark Kotsay walked into the Atlanta Braves' clubhouse healthy enough to play roughly 90 times this year, an arrival never complicated by the unknown. His name would be on the lineup card, and he would be playing center field. He barely needed to look.

Kotsay has walked into the Red Sox' clubhouse eight times this season, and each new day fulfills the expectations he had when he accepted a trade to Boston Aug. 27. He saw a team likely headed to the playoffs, but also one with a lineup thrust by injuries into flux. His routine, he knew, would be sacrificed for relevancy.

In his eight games, Kotsay has started seven - five in right field and two at first base (including last night), a position he had not played in two years. He batted sixth or fifth in his first six games, and Kotsay last night added a new line under the experience portion of his Red Sox résumé: cleanup hitter.

He went 0 for 5, but was safe on an error in the fourth, eventually scoring on a Mike Lowell single in the Sox' 8-1 win over Texas.

"It depends on who's pitching, who we have available, who's in the other bullpen," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "His versatility is tremendous. We're happy with him. We felt like we could hit him anywhere."

Kotsay's successful transformation from an everyday, veteran stalwart to an overqualified utility player owes to his unique ability - "kind of a throwback," Francona said - and his relaxed demeanor. Kotsay has spent eight of 140 games with the Red Sox. And yet, "it doesn't feel like he's new," Francona said.

"You do want to fit in," Kotsay said. "For me, my personality, I try to get along with everybody as best I can. I don't have a lot of needs or wants. I just come to the field ready to play.

"I'm older, I know the league. Playing against these guys for so long, they know my personality. They know how I like to play. And that helps."

Said first baseman Sean Casey: "You know what's great is, Kotsay has been around the league a long time. Everyone knows him. It was almost like he already fit in. There was no adjustment period. His personality is one that would fit in with anybody. That's huge, to add a guy like that this late in the year. For [general manager] Theo [Epstein] to pull the trigger on a guy like that, that's priceless."

A decade ago, Kotsay was considered one of the most explosive prospects in baseball, the ninth overall pick in the 1996 draft. His skills, particularly his cannon arm, remain, but back injuries have stifled his career. He missed all of June with soreness in his lower back, and he takes 30 to 40 minutes loosening his back muscles before each game.

He spends the rest of his time taking ground balls at first base, trying to sharpen skills he last used two years ago as an Oakland A. His preparation was simple when the year began - "once you get into a routine of playing every game in center field, your workload before the game decreases."

Kotsay traded his daily routine happily for an opportunity to play for a pennant, but he believes he'll return to his status as an everyday, no-questions-asked center fielder. He never considered his move to the Red Sox would be a career-shifting decision.

"I hope not," he said. "Because when I played every day in Atlanta, I got 330 at-bats and hit [.289]. I don't see that. My opportunity to go in to the free agent market - this decision was to play on a winning club the last month of the season, not to change my role as a player. There's going to be opportunities for me to play center field every day on a club next year."

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