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Small wonder who got things started

Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia rounds first base after hitting a solo home run in the bottom of the first inning. Behind him, Tampa Bay pitcher James Shields watches the ball sail over the Green Monster. (Globe Staff / Jim Davis) Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia rounds first base after hitting a solo home run in the bottom of the first inning. Behind him, Tampa Bay pitcher James Shields watches the ball sail over the Green Monster.
By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / April 8, 2009
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With any reigning MVP, you can't help but wonder what it's going to be like the next season.

Will he sustain the greatness over the course of two seasons? Will he be a Gold Glove winner? Will he still be able to come up with the big hit at the right time?

You ask those questions about anyone who wins the award. Dustin Pedroia's season after will be watched like anyone else's, but even more so - because, let's face it, there are those who feel there's no way the little guy comes close to his 2008 season again.

Well, let me tell you something. If yesterday was an indication of anything, it's that Pedroia - yes, just one game into the season - remains a force. MVPs provide key moments and key hits, and Pedroia belted a homer with one out in the bottom of the first after James Shields had struck out Red Sox leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury.

Do you think this set a tone for the Sox? Do you think it showed the rest of the lineup that "Listen, Shields doesn't have it today - we can beat him"?

Someone needs to set that tone, and yesterday the league MVP set it in a 5-3 victory. He did it on a 1-and-0 count, on a low and inside pitch, a further indicator that there's no place in the box you can throw it where Pedroia won't hit it. Scouts are continually amazed at the pitches he's able to drive. Teammates, too.

"He's got a special talent," said third baseman Mike Lowell. "He gets the barrel of the bat on the ball consistently and as well as anyone I've ever seen.

"I still think that people look at him physically and don't believe he's going to do damage. And he continually does damage. But yeah, when you do something like that especially on Opening Day . . . he has a knack of doing that for us."

Justin Masterson was in the bullpen when he saw Pedroia smack the ball over the Monster. Bullpen guys are usually trying to find ways to keep warm on cool afternoons like this, looking for something to rev up their engines. The guys in the pen didn't have to wait long yesterday.

"Very exciting," said Masterson. "We were all so into it. No surprise it was Dustin. I know that's what he wants to do. He's just setting the table. He just says, 'I'm ready to go, who's coming with me?'

"It's not that he'll just come out and say that, but he just does it. He does talk a lot, too, but that's what makes him so good. He repeatedly comes out, works hard, and gets the job done. Even if he goes 0 for 4. He comes into the game ready."

You keep realizing there's nobody quite like Pedroia in the majors. He's scrappy, a leader, tough as nails, a competitor. He's a throwback. Derek Jeter put it well when he said, "He definitely has a personality."

It was no surprise at the World Baseball Classic that Jeter and Pedroia got along so well. They're two guys who set the tone, who do things in special ways to motivate teammates. Two winning ballplayers. They have a tremendous feel for the moment.

Pedroia doesn't seem to spend much time thinking about the pressures and expectations that the MVP Award brings. Baseball just happens for him. Opening Day, Fenway Park. First at-bat. Second pitch of the season. Home run. Talk about setting a tone.

"I didn't really think about that," said Pedroia. "It's a long game. You know Shields is going to settle down. That's what he does. He's a quality pitcher and you have to find a way to beat those guys."

He means it. It isn't the usual ballplayer rhetoric. When you hear those words from some players - and you hear them a lot - you just roll your eyes and say, "Come on, of course you want back-to-back MVPs and all the riches they bring in endorsement deals."

And Pedroia had his share of that this offseason with his Sullivan Tire commercials and the "MLB, The Show" video game. And he signed a long-term deal with the Red Sox.

"You know what, I don't care about all that stuff," Pedroia said. "In '07, we won the World Series, and last year, I won the MVP and I was upset about the outcome of the season. Winning the World Series was the most fun I ever had in my life.

"The biggest thing for me is to help us win. I really don't care what I hit or what I do. As long as the team wins, I'm doing my job."

Beating Shields, the Opening Day starter for the defending AL champions, is something any team should be pumped up about. And it was Pedroia who began to ruin Shields's day.

Pedroia said he came into the game feeling nervous because this was his first Fenway Opening Day, the Sox having started the last two years on the road.

"It's definitely exciting because my first two years were on the road," he said. "So with all the fans here, you're definitely nervous, but you want to get off to a good start.

"I thought we played great. Josh [Beckett] was unbelievable. He set the tone for the game."

Another twist was having the players come through the stands during pregame introductions.

"I was afraid I was going to slip and fall," said Pedroia. "I had my cleats on. It was fun and exciting to be around the fans and the passion they bring, obviously."

He didn't slip.

After a dominating first inning by Beckett, he stepped to the plate as confident as ever. And got the Sox on the board.

"Everyone was excited," said Masterson, "but nobody was surprised who hit it."

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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