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McDonald answered the call

Journeyman excelled in filling Sox’ hole in center

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / May 23, 2010

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PHILADELPHIA — Darnell McDonald was sitting in a hotel room in Boston on the afternoon of April 20 when his cell phone rang.

The conversation was brief: Get in a cab and come to Fenway Park.

The Sox decided to put Jacoby Ellsbury on the disabled list and McDonald was added to the roster.

“I honestly had no idea what to expect,’’ he said. “Sometimes you get called up and hang around for a few days before they send you back.’’

That was not the case. McDonald played in 29 of the 30 games since, starting 24 of them — with the Sox going 15-9 in those games.

Ellsbury was activated before last night’s game against the Phillies and started in center field. McDonald was on the bench, but with the satisfaction of knowing he left a good impression.

Going into last night’s game, McDonald was hitting .266 with three home runs and 11 RBIs. Among American League center fielders with at least 100 plate appearances, he has the eighth-best OPS at .728. He is second in the American League with four outfield assists.

McDonald hasn’t been as good as Vernon Wells, Alex Rios, or Torii Hunter. But he has performed better than B.J. Upton, Grady Sizemore, and Adam Jones.

“Darnell did a tremendous job,’’ Ellsbury said. “He did a little of everything for us. We were lucky to have him.’’

One thing is certain: McDonald was better than the Red Sox could possibly have expected, given his background. The 31-year-old, who was signed to a minor-league contract in November, had played only 68 games in the majors for three teams over parts of three seasons.

The Red Sox are his seventh organization since 2004.

“He was looking for the opportunity. I think he got it and kind of relished it instead of got it and maybe panicked, which is good,’’ Sox manager Terry Francona said. “That’s easier said than done.’’

McDonald had an eventful debut against the Rangers April 20, belting a two-run homer in the eighth inning to tie the game, then winning it with an RBI single in the bottom of the ninth. On Tuesday, he helped spark a rally against the Yankees by lining a single to center against Mariano Rivera.

“Right away he got big hits for us. He hit lefthanders especially well. He made intelligent, strong throws,’’ Francona said “When you get three deep in center fielders and reach down to Triple A, I don’t know that you’re going to get the guy to hit .380 and win the Gold Glove. I thought he did a really good job. He showed up and tried to win and help us win. He was impressive.’’

Opposing pitchers challenged the little-known McDonald with fastballs early and he feasted on them. After a few weeks, he saw a steady stream of breaking pitches and fastballs off the plate. He fell into a slump but emerged from it successfully, collecting 11 hits in his last 33 at-bats.

“I’ve learned to make adjustments,’’ he said. “I’m aggressive by nature, but I learned what I needed to do. If you’re going to be a good player, you have to do that.

“This has been my best experience in baseball, being around these guys and feeling the pressure to win every day. I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve gotten to do some things I’ll remember all my life.’’

When Mike Cameron comes off the disabled list, which could be as soon as Tuesday, the Sox will have to make a roster move and McDonald’s tenure with the team could end. He is out of options, meaning the Sox would have to designate him for assignment.

He has performed well enough to get a chance with another team to play. But at the same time, he wants to stay in the Sox organization.

“I like the way these people have treated me from the start,’’ McDonald said. “I don’t want to leave.

“I know the game is a business, I understand that. But this place feels like home to me.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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