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Put on the spot, Aviles leads way

Shortstop a hit at top of lineup

By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / April 15, 2012
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Jacoby Ellsbury last year established himself as the Red Sox’ undisputed leadoff hitter, producing an All-Star season in which he led the majors in extra-base hits (83) and total bases (364), becoming the first primarily leadoff man to do so since San Francisco’s Bobby Bonds had 341 in 1973.

So it was expected that manager Bobby Valentine would have a huge void to fill at the top of his lineup Saturday after Ellsbury was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a subluxation of his right shoulder.

In a 13-5 victory over the Rays before a Fenway Park crowd of 38,024, shortstop Mike Aviles did his best to fill that void, going 3 for 5 with a double and a solo homer that broke a 5-5 tie and sparked a three-run outburst in the seventh.

“It’s always a challenge anywhere you hit in this lineup, because I know how much we expect out of ourselves and I know how much the fans expect out of us,’’ said Aviles, who entered the game a .318 hitter in 45 career games batting leadoff.

Against the Rays, Aviles was the tip of the sword for an offense that battered four pitchers for 15 hits, including five homers.

“Honestly, it’s a privilege to hit anywhere in this lineup, because you always have protection,’’ said Aviles, noting how hitting in front of the likes of Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis, and David Ortiz helped him get better pitches to hit. “And I was fortunate enough to get a couple of good pitches today.’’

It marked the second time this season that someone other than Ellsbury hit leadoff, with Nick Punto doing so last Sunday.

But in Aviles’s estimation, the most important hit on Saturday belonged to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, whose two-run homer in the second inning off Jeremy Hellickson helped jump-start the Sox after the Rays took a 4-0 lead in the first.

“We’re down, 4-0, and he cut the deficit in half,’’ Aviles said. “But with this kind of offense we know we can score four runs, especially early in the game like that. We just keep plugging away and plugging away and got a run here and got a run there.

But Saltalamacchia reciprocated, citing Aviles’s homer as the hit that put the Sox ahead to stay, 6-5, delivering Clay Buchholz his first win.

“That was huge,’’ Saltalamacchia said. “I mean, we were trailing the whole game and Buch was working his butt off trying to keep us in that game, and with our offense you can never count us out. So when he hit that home run and we took that lead, we wanted that one for Buch, because he stayed in that game for us and kept pitching great.’’

Aviles, who had lined out to right with the bases loaded in his previous at-bat in the fourth, wasn’t certain if his homer had enough oomph to clear the wall in left.

“I’m used to the spring training field [at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla.] where the wall is probably about 5 feet higher,’’ Aviles said. “So the second I hit it, I was running hard because I was like, ‘I got to get to second base,’ so we could get in scoring position to get that run.’’

But when he rounded first and saw umpire Brian Gorman signal a homer, “I was like, ‘All right, that works, too,’ ’’ Aviles said.

Even though it was the first time this season he hit leadoff, Aviles didn’t make any substantive changes in his plate approach.

“No, I actually don’t change, regardless of where I’m hitting,’’ he said. “In the past when I have changed my approach, I’ve found myself [down] 0-2 a lot quicker. I try to stay aggressive in the zone, that’s the only difference.

“In the top part of the lineup, I just try to be aggressive in the zone and try to really bear down and get a pitch I know I can drive and really try to take advantage of it.’’

So, did hitting leadoff suit him well?

“Yeah, today it did,’’ Aviles said, breaking into a wide smile. “When the offense is clicking like that, I have no problems with that. It definitely worked out well.’’

But with Valentine noncommittal, Aviles was not expecting to cement the spot as his own.

“I will come in tomorrow and check that board,’’ Aviles said. “If I’m [batting] ninth then that’s fine, too.’’

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

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