BOSTON -- The game ended with the type of play Red Sox fans have witnessed countless times before. The second baseman ranged far to his left and dived, knocking the ball down, then scrambled to his feet to throw out the hitter.
“I thought he did a great one,’’ shortstop Mike Aviles said. “I don’t think Pedey gets to that ball.’’
That’s when Aviles busted out laughing.
“I was joking earlier, ‘Finally, we got a good second baseman,’’’ said Aviles, whose locker is right next to that of Pedroia. “In all honesty, it was a tremendous play by Nick, a very athletic move. My hat goes off to Nick on that play.’’
The last time Pedroia was seen on the field, Monday night in Fenway Park, he’d made exactly that type of play, roaming to his left, diving and throwing out Detroit’s Danny Worth. That was in the fifth inning, and Pedroia did not come out for the sixth, leading to speculation that he had been injured on the play.
It was only the next day that Pedroia revealed he had jammed his right thumb hitting nearly three weeks earlier, and had continued to play, every inning of every game except for a couple of late-inning breathers in blowouts, until he aggravated the thumb Monday, on an at-bat in which he popped out, and then on the dive. Tuesday night, first Pedroia, then GM Ben Cherington, revealed he had a torn adductor muscle in the thumb.
Pedroia is resisting a trip to the disabled list, at least until it can be demonstrated beyond doubt that he cannot play with the thumb in its present condition. The Sox are planning to fashion a padded brace for the thumb in the hope that he will still be able to grip a bat; throwing the ball, Cherington said, is not an issue.
If that can’t be done, or if the Sox decide Pedroia cannot play without risking further injury -- and it hasn’t been disclosed whether by playing the last three weeks he made the thumb worse -- the All-Star second baseman will go to the DL, the 17th Sox player to be placed on the list this season.
How do the Sox survive without him?
“He’s a big part of this offense, a big part of this team,’’ Aviles said. “We still have to band together as a team and figure out ways to score runs and do what we have to do. It doesn’t take away from the fact we still have to play games and keep waking up every day and coming to the field. We just have to move forward, bear down and come together more as a team, figure out ways to manufacture runs and win games.’’
Boston’s first test without Pedroia was an imposing one -- facing Justin Verlander, the reigning MVP and Cy Young Award winner -- and they responded with one of their best games of the season in a 6-3 win. They knocked around Verlander for 10 hits and 5 runs, with Daniel Nava belting a 100-mile-an-hour fastball for a three-run double, Ryan Sweeney (two) and Scott Podsednik made outstanding catches in the outfield, David Ortiz hit a home run and two doubles, Daniel Bard kept the Tigers at bay for 5 1/3 innings, Alfredo Aceves rang up save No. 12 and Punto made his game-ending play.
And Aviles, in a small but meaningful way, did his part, hustling down the first-base line in the second inning to beat out a double play that the Tigers should have turned, allowing Ortiz to score the first run of the game.
“A guy like Verlander, I think every run you get is important because he’s the type of pitcher, as the game goes on, he gets better,’’ Aviles said. ”With the arsenal he brings to the table, it’s hard as it is to make solid contact, let alone score runs on him.
“As soon as I hit the ball I knew I had to bust it pretty hard because I knew if I was safe we’d have at least one run and a one-run lead, and then maybe we could build some momentum.’’
Two innings later, the Sox loaded the bases on singles by Kevin Youkilis, Aviles and Podsednik, and Nava lashed a full-count double that scored all three.
But as well as they played without him, no one wants to contemplate a prolonged absence by Pedroia. At the moment, the Sox are playing short-handed without him, but if he goes on the DL they will add another infielder. One possibility is shortstop Jose Iglesias, but he has not played since May 25, reportedly because of minor back issues.
Iglesias, whose defensive skills are unquestioned, has made considerable progress at the plate, batting .341 in May to raise his overall average to .269.
“He's been moving runners, bunting,” Pawtucket manager Arnie Beyeler told Soxprospects.com. “He's just been kind of playing his game. When he gets away from that it's not good for him. But he's done a good job over the last few weeks just playing his game.”
A callup of Iglesias would require a move to second by Aviles, who has performed at a high level at shortstop all season, refuting the doubters who questioned his ability to play there every day.
Aviles said he has not been approached about making a move to second, a position he has played in the past.
“No, it hasn’t come to me, nobody really said anything to me,’’ he said Tuesday night. “I’m having fun at short. I like playing short. We’ll see what happens.’’
Pedroia suggested that if he goes on the DL, he’ll be out three to four weeks. Aviles acknowledges that he doesn’t compare to Iglesias defensively, but his reluctance to move is understandable. The Sox could instead opt to use Punto at second, and either add another veteran backup infielder via trade or waivers or call up someone like veteran minor-league utilityman Pedro Ciriaco, who had a good spring for the Sox after making his big-league debut for the Pirates last season.
Ciriaco, who is a good defender and has speed, had two hits Tuesday night while playing short in Iglesias’s place and is batting .304 (.324 OBP).
Punto, meanwhile, was signed by the Sox for just this purpose, to give the team depth at three infield positions. The 34-year-old Punto has played for four big-league teams and last season was a valuable reserve for a St. Louis team that won a World Series, posting a .278/.388/.421/.809 batting line in 63 games for the Cardinals in addition to playing his usual lockdown defense.
But Tuesday night was just his third start for the Red Sox (his previous two at short), and in sporadic at-bats so, he far has not produced offensively, batting just .140 (6 for 43). There are few jobs more difficult in baseball than being productive at the plate when you’re not playing regularly, so the Red Sox can reasonably expect that if Punto fills in for Pedroia, he will approach his career line of .247/.324/.325/.649 while playing solid defense.
Is that enough to keep the Sox from taking the more dramatic step of promoting Iglesias to the big leagues ahead of schedule? For now, the Sox remain hopeful that Pedroia can play. Whether that is the case or just misplaced optimism will be determined in the next couple of days.