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This spring wasn’t hot for Youkilis

KEVIN YOUKILIS Lessons learned KEVIN YOUKILIS
Lessons learned
By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / April 1, 2011

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HOUSTON — If anyone was glad to see the Red Sox conclude spring training, it was Kevin Youkilis.

The third baseman wound up the spring with a .175 batting average — low among the team’s regulars — after going 0 for 4 in Wednesday’s 10-0 romp over the Astros at Minute Maid Park.

“I’m glad just to get this thing over with because I don’t think I could even buy a hit,’’ lamented Youkilis after the game. “I’d hit a ball and it seemed like it was always at somebody.

“Even tonight, the ball I hit to center field, I was like, ‘Just drop one time!’ It’s one of those things where the other day I hit the ball to third base, really hard, and in a simulated game I hit two home runs.’’

Though the homers didn’t count, the mere fact that he was able to go yard this spring “still gave me some confidence,’’ said Youkilis.

“It’s still a work in progress,’’ he said. “I think, me personally, I’ve got about 600 plate appearances to go, so hopefully I got a lot of the bad ones out of the way.’’

After the way he struggled, going 10 for 57 with just 12 total bases in 21 games, the biggest positive was that Youkilis emerged from spring training in good health, ready to fight another day.

“Sometimes you press too much when you feel you’re not doing well,’’ Youkilis said. “You get outside of what you’re doing, and luckily I did that now rather than during the season.’’

With the bases loaded and no outs in the fourth Wednesday, Astros reliever Jose Valdez come on and fanned Youkilis swinging, badly.

“It’s more off-speed than I’ve ever seen in spring training,’’ Youkilis said. “I think every at-bat I had a 3-and-2 off-speed pitch.’’

Is it something he has to work on?

“Nah, I just think it was a coincidence,’’ Youkilis said. “When you’re not going good, everything kind of spirals out of control. You just get in a funk.

“When you have 55 at-bats, 60 at-bats, 40 at-bats, that’s not even one-10th of a season. We’re all going to go through our spurts when we have bad times and, hopefully, this is the struggle I had.’’

At the start of spring training, manager Terry Francona called Youkilis “one of the premier hitters in the league.’’

It’s an opinion he never changed, even as Youkilis struggled.

“He’s still a good hitter,’’ said Francona, who has penciled in Youkilis as his cleanup hitter for Opening Day — a day on which Youkilis traditionally has done well. In five Opening Day starts, Youkilis has hit .381 (8 for 21) with three doubles and a triple.

Despite being limited to 362 at-bats last season before undergoing season-ending surgery on his right thumb, Youkilis logged healthy numbers: a .307 batting average, .411 on-base percentage, and .564 slugging percentage.

“He never gives away an at-bat, ever,’’ Francona marveled. “He grinds out every at-bat, which leads to not only him being a productive hitter, but how many times have you seen Youk have a long at-bat and the next guy comes up and gets a pitch to handle because the [pitcher] is frustrated?’’

While Youkilis didn’t seem to miss a beat in his return to third base this spring, his struggles at the plate provided him with many a lesson.

“You just learned your swing and learned what you were doing wrong,’’ he said. “If you hit .500 in spring and you feel like everything’s going good, sometimes you go into the season overconfident and the next thing you know is you don’t know how to react to [adversity].

“I always like to have one week of good, kind of struggle, then work back to good.

“When you go through the bad, then you understand how to get to good. I don’t feel like I’m there now, but I’m getting some good at-bats and for me it’s just about getting good at-bats. The key for me is having four good at-bats every night.’’

It matters not where he hits in the lineup. Fourth, fifth. In front of Adrian Gonzalez or behind him.

“I can hit anywhere,’’ Youkilis said. “I’ve hit everywhere in this lineup before.’’

So what kind of mind-set will Youkilis take into the opener against the Rangers?

“Just go out there and do anything to win, offensively and defensively and running the bases,’’ Youkilis said. “You just put the team before yourself and go out there and play as hard as you can.

“And if you play as hard as you can with the guys we have here, good things will happen.’’

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.

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