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Dan Shaughnessy

Pedroia was a showstopper

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / April 23, 2011

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — He says his hair is coming back. He says he and his college teammates invented the “Laser Show’’ while taking batting practice at Arizona State. He says he knows what it’s like to be Jarrod Saltalamacchia, struggling out of the gate while people whisper that you’re no good.

Dustin Pedroia will say just about anything if you talk to him long enough. And in this goofy, underachieving Red Sox April of 2011, he has emerged as the team’s de facto captain, a guy who can take over a baseball game without hitting a ball as far as the warning track.

Pedroia submitted a hardball tour de force in the Red Sox’ 11-inning, 4-2 victory at the Big A Thursday night. While New England slept, Pedroia reached base five times, stole a base, dodged a tag in a rundown between third and home, fired a one-hop relay strike to gun down Erick Aybar going for a triple leading off the eighth, and shot an 0-and-2 pitch into right field for a single that triggered the winning rally in the 11th.

“I’ve never seen a player dominate a game like that without hitting a home run,’’ said radio man Joe Castiglione, who was covering the Sox when Ralph Houk was manager.

Terry Francona, the man who manages the Red Sox in 2011, loves Pedroia the way Bruce Springsteen loves Miami Steve Van Zandt.

“I’ve said this about [Derek] Jeter: They want him to have something to do with the outcome of the game,’’ Francona gushed after Thursday’s win. “That’s how we feel about Pedey. Whether it’s offensively, defensively. He’s a great player, but you see the best of him when the game is close and on the line.’’

“We needed to win, man,’’ said Pedroia. “It’s one of those games. They have a great team. We’re on the road, we’re fighting. If we lost that game, it would have been a huge letdown.’’

He went into last night’s game batting .333, ranking in the top 10 in the league in batting average and on-base percentage (.450). In a season in which the Sox had the worst record in baseball for the first two weeks, Pedroia has been the single steady force since Day 1.

“I’m not trying to do too much, I’m just trying to be who I am,’’ he said. “That’s it. My role on this team is to play good defense. If they ask me to bunt, I bunt. If they ask me to steal, I steal.’’

In many ways, he is the anti-Nomar.

Nomar Garciaparra could hit .372 and inspire the worship of Hub fans, but he never got comfortable around Fenway. Pedroia understands and embraces the Boston Baseball Experience.

“I’ve been through a couple of these [team slumps],’’ he said. “Last year we started, like, 4-9. As players, you’ve got to take a deep breath and go play.

“It’s such a long season. In June and July, you don’t remember these games. I think the fans are great. They live and die by us and that makes it special.

“In my rookie year, they were booing me and I thought it was great. I wasn’t playing good. It’s just what they demand out of their players. You never want to get booed, obviously, but they care so much. They care about every game, and that makes it fun.’’

Unless you start like Carl Crawford or Salty.

“I talked to Carl in spring training,’’ said Pedroia. “I told him that you find out a lot about yourself playing here.

“I’ve been hearing it playing baseball my whole life. They told me I was too small, but once you get here in this environment, it doesn’t matter if you are 6-5 or 4-5. If you don’t perform well or if you don’t help the team win, they’re going to let you know.

“That’s why it’s not about how you feel. You can wake up one day and be sore and hurting and your swing feels like crap, but the only thing that matters is how you perform. That’s what Boston’s all about.’’

The Nation gulped Thursday night when Pedroia came up limping after stealing second base in the third inning. He hooked his left foot on the bag. That’s the same foot that was surgically repaired after Pedroia fouled a ball off his instep in San Francisco last June. He still has a pin in the foot — a piece of titanium that will be removed after this season.

“I’m good,’’ Pedroia said. “It was just kind of like a stinger. It shot up my leg and took a couple of minutes to get the feeling back.’’

The key play of the series opener came in the bottom of the eighth with the score tied, 2-2. Leading off the inning, Aybar banged a ball down the right-field line and foolishly tried to make it a triple. Pedroia took J.D. Drew’s throw, pivoted, and gunned a one-hop strike to Jed Lowrie at third.

“That’s why in spring training I don’t screw around with that,’’ said Pedroia. “I always try and get my legs underneath me. I don’t ever go 50 percent in those drills. It’s going to come down to three or four games a year where we make a good throw, we win. Tonight it was one of those games. Practice pays off.’’

Which gets us back to his unique relationship with his one and only big league manager. Pedroia and Francona play cribbage every day. They’ve done television commercials together. Somehow, it’s hard to imagine Joe Kerrigan and Carl Everett teaming up for a Dunkin’ Donuts spot.

“I’m just happy he stuck by me a few years ago,’’ said Pedroia. “I think he saw the way I prepared and the way I cared about playing the game the right way and helping the team win, so I was hoping one day I’d earn his respect.

“We’re all on the same page, it doesn’t matter if you’re a coach or a player. Everyone has a role in helping us win a game.’’

And the Laser Show?

“In college, we used aluminum bats,’’ he said. “They were like weapons. Our third base coach would literally stand in left field. So I called it the Laser Show. Titanium sparks. Rocket-fests. It was an ASU thing.’’

If you’re lucky, the Laser Show will be coming soon to a ballpark near you.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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