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Pedroia was in the middle of this pivotal play

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / August 17, 2011

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The key figure in the Red Sox turning a triple play last night against the Tampa Bay Rays? Dustin Pedroia.

Without his toughness, the smoothly executed 5-4-3 doesn’t happen.

Usually, everything has to be perfectly placed to complete a 5-4-3 triple play (it had never happened in Red Sox history), and the guy in the middle has to make one heck of a play. After Sean Rodriguez hit the hard grounder to Jed Lowrie at third, all Lowrie had to do was field the ball a step back of the bag, tag third to force B.J. Upton, and make a quick, strong throw to second.

But the key was Pedroia hanging in as Casey Kotchman bore in on him at second. This was routine for Pedroia, who turns the double play as well as anyone. Pedroia managed a throw that got Rodriguez at first on a play that wasn’t even close.

“It was pretty cool,’’ Lowrie said. “I was thinking if I got a ground ball I’d just step on third and go to first, but he hit a two-hopper to my right side and it just set up perfect for a triple play. That’s the first one I’ve ever seen let alone been a part of. I know Pedroia is one of the best in the business at turning it so I knew we had a chance. I got the ball to him quick and on target. I know if I do that, I have a good chance of doing it. It’s exciting. That’s one of those plays in baseball you don’t get to see very often or be a part of.’’

Pedroia did not speak about the play after the Sox’ 6-2 loss, but first baseman Adrian Gonzalez said, “Once the ball was caught [at third] I thought if we executed the throws we’d have a chance, and we executed the throws.’’

John Valentin pulled off Boston’s last triple play - unassisted - on July 8, 1994 at Fenway.

With runners on the move at first and second in the sixth inning, he snared Marc Newfield’s liner, stepped on second to force Mike Blowers, and trotted a few steps to tag Keith Mitchell.

Valentin was able to do it with the bat that night as well, as his three-run homer enabled the Sox to overtake the Mariners, 4-3. Last night, the triple play couldn’t trigger a Sox victory.

Although we think of triple plays as rare, there have been three this season. The Indians pulled one on the White Sox April 3 at Progressive Field, and the Brewers turned one Monday night against the Dodgers at Miller Park.

For the Sox, ranked dead last in the American League with 90 double plays, second to last in the majors, it was unusual. It was the 11th triple play by the Red Sox since 1954.

That fourth inning started with a single to center by Upton and a single to left by Kotchman.

Sox starter Erik Bedard, who gave up two runs in the second inning, one because of Lowrie’s miscue, was spared by the triple play.

“You just kind of react to it,’’ said Lowrie, filling in at third for Kevin Youkilis, who rested a sore back. “I’m not really thinking [triple play] at that point. If I get a ball hit hard to me, I have to think about getting two.’’

For Lowrie, it was a redemption of sorts.

His throwing error in the second led to one of two unearned runs. With runners at second and third and one out, Lowrie fielded Rodriguez’s grounder and he went to the plate, where he had Ben Zobrist dead. Unfortunately, Lowrie one-hopped the throw toward Jason Varitek, who couldn’t hold on to the ball. Lowrie had also been involved in a big play Sunday when he didn’t get the benefit of a call at second base on a force play. He pulled away from the bag too soon to avoid a hit and the umpire ruled the runner safe. Such was not the case with Pedroia, who was willing to get his mouth smashed to make the throw.

Asked what he’d do differently on the throwing error, Lowrie said, “I’d throw it to [Varitek] in air. It was a hard hit ball to my left and I had a shot at getting him out at home and threw it in the dirt. One of those quick plays, a reaction once again. Made the decision to go home with it. On line, but just short.’’

Lowrie was also involved in a botched double-steal in the eighth, which resulted in Zobrist being credited with a steal of home. With runners at first and third and Franklin Morales pitching, Upton broke for second on a pickoff attempt. Gonzalez threw to second, and shortstop Mike Aviles started running Upton back to first. Aviles then threw to third. By then, Zobrist was breaking for the plate and Lowrie’s throw hit Zobrist in the back.

“I tried to get outside and create a throwing lane,’’ Lowrie said. “Tek slid over and I think [Zobrist] saw Tek slide over so he kind of veered. He was running well inside the base line and when he saw Tek slide out, he started running toward the outside lane like a magnet.’’ Lowrie thought Aviles made the right play. “He ran B.J. back and when Zobrist went, he ran at him. I think he made the right play, it’s just unfortunate the ball hit [Zobrist].’’

Although some of Boston’s infielders had it tough, Pedroia continued to star.

He ended the first game with an incredible extension to rob Upton of a hit. The liner was actually behind Pedroia, who leaped and came down with the ball, landing hard.

It’s always difficult to show your toughness in a non-contact sport such as baseball, but Pedroia seems to make it routine on so many plays. He did it again in the seventh inning of Game 2, when he robbed Desmond Jennings, who looks to be the Rays’ new Carl Crawford, making a diving grab of a hard-hit liner that was headed to center field.

Pedroia, not surprisingly, was in the middle of everything again. Lowrie started the triple play, but Pedroia’s extraordinary pivot made it happen.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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