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Tranquility base for Youkilis

He much prefers third over first

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By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / February 16, 2011

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — Kevin Youkilis won a Gold Glove playing first base and twice made the All-Star team at that position. Only three Red Sox — Mo Vaughn, Jimmie Foxx, and George Scott — have hit more home runs while playing the position.

But it’s not where Youkilis wanted to be. He was a third baseman at the University of Cincinnati and played the position for five seasons in the minor leagues. Youkilis made the switch to first base when the Red Sox traded for third baseman Mike Lowell prior to the 2006 season because it made the most sense for the team at the time.

Now Youkilis is back where he feels be belongs, shifting across the diamond to accommodate the arrival of first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.

“I’m not going to miss it,’’ he said yesterday.

For all his success at first base, Youkilis did not like the dirty work involved. Holding on runners, for instance.

“Absolutely stinks,’’ he said. “I hated holding on runners.’’

He also chafed at chatting up players from opposing teams. Baseball etiquette calls for the first baseman to greet players when they arrive at the bag. Sean “The Mayor’’ Casey could carry on conversations for entire innings. Kevin Millar also enjoyed gabbing.

But the ultra-competitive Youkilis would rather have silence.

“There’s nothing worse when you’re getting beat, like, 13-1 and you’re at first base and everybody keeps getting hits. The social scene over there I can do without. I’ve never been a social-scene kind of guy. It’s not fun.’’

Now Youkilis will be alone on a dirt island, playing a position that calls for do-or-die reflexes. But he has been preparing for months.

Gonzalez was acquired from the Padres in December, but the Red Sox told Youkilis before that it was likely he would return to third base. Had they not obtained Gonzalez, they knew it would be difficult to retain free agent Adrian Beltre, who played third last season.

Youkilis welcomed the news.

“I was a third baseman all my life and played third base at the major level quite a few times,’’ he said. “For me, it’s just about going out there and taking ground balls and getting used to all the little things that come with third base.’’

Manager Terry Francona said it was important to give Youkilis time to gain more flexibility with his legs and regain strength in his arm. He worked with infield coach Tim Bogar in Boston during the winter, a process that will continue during spring training.

“It shouldn’t be a problem for him,’’ Francona said. “I think he’s always viewed himself as a third baseman. He’s excited to be over there.’’

Youkilis plans to work extensively on his throwing in spring training, a skill rarely required for a first baseman.

“That’s a key to third base,’’ he said. “The way I always see it, it doesn’t matter if you throw underhand, if you throw it straight over the top, as long as the ball gets to first base before the runner hits that bag, it doesn’t really matter.

“There are certain angles, when you’re running and you bare-hand the ball, you’re going to throw underneath. When you come in and charge the ball, you’re going to be a little side [arm]. When you throw to second, a little side. When you backhand [a grounder], you come straight over the top and fire.

“All the different angles are something you have to work on, and your accuracy. Accuracy has always been a trademark of mine at third.’’

Youkilis, who turns 32 next month, thinks this is a perfect time in his career for him to make the switch. In his mind, it’s an easier position to play.

“Third base, there’s games when you don’t even get a ball hit to you,’’ he said. “You have to be a better fielder and get your body in a better position to make the throw.

“For me, I don’t think it’ll be a problem. The biggest thing will be getting comfortable again and that’ll come in spring training. The good thing is, as you get older, you get more comfortable with yourself. That’s a positive.

“I’m more comfortable now than I was at 24 or 25 years old at third base. With old age, it might be a blessing.’’

Youkilis has started 180 games at third base in his career, although only two last season. He does not expect to be as smooth as Beltre was last season. But he does expect to play at a high level.

“I know I’m going to make some errors at third base,’’ he said. “Third base probably has the highest rate of errors of any position. I know it’s going to happen.

“I just want to make the [routine] plays and not make mental errors. You’re going to get bad hops, you’re making a little throw here or there. As long as you’re not making mental errors, that’s the key.’’

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

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