There's a noon start at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, and Ryan Kalish is out extra early for batting practice. It's a little after 9 a.m. and Kalish is already deep in a sweat, hacking in the cage. He oozes enthusiasm.
Part of it is that mentality coaches look for in a quarterback -- a trait Kalish possesses as a former University of Virginia football recruit. But mostly, Kalish is just happy to be able to swing again. He has spent the entire season with the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox, but primarily as a spectator, cheering on his teammates from the sidelines like a backup quarterback. All that's missing is the clipboard.
"It's been about 10 days that I've felt really good," Kalish said recently behind a thick pair of Nike sunglasses. "It's been a long time since I've felt like that."
On Thursday in Lowell, Kalish returns to the field on a rehabilitation assignment with the short-season Class A Lowell Spinners. Kalish last played on April 21, when he suffered a torn labrum in his left shoulder while making a sensational, fully-extended, diving catch in center field. If he hadn't been hurt, he almost certainly would have been the one called up to the big leagues when the Red Sox needed an outfielder, instead of Josh Reddick.
Now it is Reddick who is playing every day with the Red Sox, while Kalish travels what has been a torturous road to recovery. He had hoped to return to the PawSox lineup in about a month, and appeared on track when he reported to extended spring training in Florida in May. But soon thereafter, he developed a throbbing pain in his neck.
More than three months after his initial injury, Kalish is just now starting to feel himself again.
"The setback was the worst," Kalish said. "I beat the shoulder injury in about five weeks, then it was the neck injury. I've had a stiff neck before; in three or four days, you feel better. This was different."
Kalish sustained a trapezius injury while rehabbing the shoulder injury. At times, the shooting pain in his neck was so severe he couldn't bear to drive his car. The only place he felt comfortable was lying down on the floor.
But finally, after more rehab, he is ready to make his return. He jumped back into the cages and began hitting about a week ago.
"For me now, it's just about going out there and trusting my body and trusting that it's not going to hurt to swing," Kalish said. "That's where I'm at."
But it has worn on the typically upbeat player.
"It would be ridiculous to say it hasn't been frustrating," Kalish said. "When you love to do something and you can't, that's tough."
Reddick raised a country boy with a dream
Reddick's teammates call him Stiffler, in reference to his resemblance to Seann William Scott of the "American Pie" movie series. The nickname has stuck since high school.
The Georgia native calls himself "a country boy from the woods.''
After a recent game, Reddick stood in the Red Sox clubhouse and looked ready for an offseason fishing trip, sporting a Bass Pro Shops hat and little scruff around his neck. The avid fisherman doesn't want people to think he fits into a stereotype of Southerners, however.
"I don't like to drink and I don't like to hunt," Reddick said. "I just don't see the point of getting up at 4 in the morning when it's freezing cold to go out and sit around and wait around for the chance that you might see something to shoot at."
He also employs a Zen-like approach to fishing. He releases everything he catches. It's more about the chance to hang out on the water with a couple of buddies and clear the mind.
"That's when I'm most relaxed," he said.
Reddick maintains a low profile. He doesn't care for social media; he's not on Twitter and doesn't have so much as a Facebook account. All he's ever really cared about is baseball. In the fall, he dons his Dawgs gear like most Georgians, but Reddick never played football. His father, Kenny, was afraid he would injure his knees and jeopardize his baseball career. That's the way it's been since Josh was 5 years old, when he knew he wanted to be a pro baseball player.
"That's the thing about my dad," said Josh, who grew up in the small town of Guyton, Ga. "It's that when he realized that my passion was to become a major league baseball player, he did everything he could do to make sure I realized my dream."
Before Josh was a year old, his father was working in a bucket truck, repairing a line for the local power company. He was jolted by 7,500 volts of electricity from a live wire. At the hospital, he was pronounced dead and revived three times. He survived, but his left hand was amputated and he was left with only three fingers on his right hand.
Kenny was forced to file for disability, unable to work. He always was the restless kind, but with extra time, he devoted all of his energy to the baseball exploits of Josh and his brother, Bradford.
"He did everything he could do, especially love the game as much as he did growing up," Josh said. "Blessed as he was to be living again, that [experience] stuck with him. And he's the kind of guy that's proud of his work; he's always got to doing something. He can't sit around the house or he gets stir crazy."
Kenny made sure Josh had everything he needed to make his dream a reality, whether it was springing for a new glove or driving for hours to a baseball tournament. His father's commitment has always stuck with him.
"I can't ever take a whole lot for granted after the struggles he's been through," Josh said.
When opportunity knocked, Reddick answered
So maybe the stars had to align just right for Josh Reddick to find himself in the Red Sox lineup. J.D. Drew swooned. Mike Cameron fell into a pit of despair. Carl Crawford went down with an injury. Kalish got hurt.
But there is no question he has seized the moment. Entering Thursday night's game, he was batting .341 with a .943 OPS, with four home runs and 21 RBIs.
Drew, the man he displaced in right field, has taken notice.
"Josh has played great, man," Drew said last week before going on the disabled list with a shoulder injury. "He's probably one of the most improved players I've seen. He went one extreme to another and it's been fun to watch."
Reddick appears to be an integral part of the Red Sox's playoff push. The trade deadline has come and gone. Carlos Beltran landed in San Francisco and there wasn't so much as a Jeff Francoeur deal. So, at least for the time being, the Sox are depending on the 24-year-old country boy, who coincidentally grew up less than 200 miles from Drew, another small-town Georgian.
Reddick is now concentrated on making sure his dream endures.
Much of that will hinge on his patience at the plate.
"When he's had his call-ups here in the last couple of years, he cost himself some at-bats," Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan said of Reddick. "The adjustment he's made is that he's taken a more consistent-effort level swing instead of just getting in those hitter's counts and not even picking up the ball and trying to hit the ball 800 feet.
"Now, he's picking up the ball, picking up the spin and using the same effort level through the count."
Reddick earned the reputation of a free-swinger early in his career, but what has never been questioned is his bat speed. That came from his lessons with his father, who with just three fingers taught Reddick how to hit.
"He's the type of guy that when you're feeding soft toss to him, you have to run to get out of the way of his bat," said Pawtucket hitting coach Chili Davis, a 19-year big league veteran. "You have to hurry to make sure you get out of the way."
Reddick recalled his time spent at Double-A Portland during the 2009 season as a pivotal moment in his development. After a hot start, Reddick fell into a prolonged slump that season. As a challenge to the young hitter, then-Sea Dogs manager Arnie Beyeler forced Reddick to take a strike before swinging in each plate appearance.
"He's always had the ability," said Beyeler, who's now the manager at Triple-A Pawtucket. "He's always hit home runs and driven the ball, but now he's doing that on a consistent basis with his approach at the plate. He's done that and, in turn, he's gotten more chances to play."
Kalish in the mold of Nixon
With the reckless abandon he exhibits in the outfield, Kalish has been compared to former Red Sox right fielder Trot Nixon. The 23-year-old New Jersey native was raised a Red Sox fan in the heart of Yankees country. Both of Kalish's parents grew up in the Boston area and he still has plenty of relatives throughout New England.
It's no coincidence he calls the original Dirt Dog a major influence.
"I don't know how you wouldn't want to play the game like him," Kalish said of Nixon. "He did so many good things for the Red Sox organization, I don't know who wouldn't want to emulate him, just his style of playing the outfield. A lot of guys play the game hard, but if I can be anything like Trot, that'd be pretty sweet."
Davis sees that mentality as an asset. Mostly.
"Ryan's makeup, along with his tools, is what is going to get him to the big leagues," Davis said. "He's got a great mental makeup, he's a gamer.
"But that's kind of what got him hurt, it's the way he plays the game."
Old friends and soon-to-be-competitors
Reddick has kept his in-season home in Rhode Island, a short ride from Pawtucket, where he began the season, but hasn't had much time to hang out with his old PawSox teammates, friends such as Lars Anderson and Kalish.
He first met Kalish in extended spring training in 2007, a year after they were first drafted -- Kalish in the ninth round, Reddick in the 17th. They've been close friends ever since.
With Drew on his way out, the two figure to fight for the starting spot in right field at spring training next season.
"It's a competition, but at the same time, we're rooting for each other," Reddick said. "We never take that competition to the level where we don't like each other. We want to see each other succeed. He's a great kid, I love him to death."
It would be easy for two players striving for the same spot to be at odds, but that has never stood between them. Kalish said he appreciates the way Reddick has reached out to him during this troubled season.
"The best thing you can have is support," Kalish said of Reddick, who frequently drops a line via text message. "Him saying, 'I hope you're back out there soon.' I can hear the love coming through the phone. We talk about everything, though. We have that type of friendship. Even though we're in different places now, we still stay in touch."
There are two months left in this baseball season and much to be determined. Will Reddick continue to produce in Boston? Can Kalish finally get back on the field and stay there?
As much as things have changed for the two friends, they've stayed the same.
"Life's too short to be upset about your friend's success," Kalish said. "He's my friend and I'm nothing but happy for him. Heck, I want to make the big leagues just like he does. We push each other, we make each other better.
"Who knows? Next year it can be a completely different game. You never know where you're going to end up. That's all part of the game."
Scott Barboza covers high school sports and occasionally the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.