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Saturday, February 27, 2010
Tall expectations at short

By Joe McDonald
ESPNBoston.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It was tough for anyone watching from behind the fences to know exactly which Red Sox player was spraying the ball all over the field on Saturday morning at the player development complex.

The weather was gloomy, rainy and windy as the player in the batting cage on Field 5 was putting on a hitting display. He was short, maybe 5-foot-9, and he exhibited a wide stance in the box. The protective padding on the cage rails masked his face as fans were trying to figure out who he was.

When his round of BP was over, Marco Scutaro stepped out of the cage and into clear view.

Even though the former Blue Jay reached career highs in average (.282), home runs (12) and RBIs (60) last season in Toronto, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein did not sign Scutaro to a two-year deal worth $12.5 million just because of his bat.

The Red Sox need his glove.

The lack of consistency at the shortstop position in 2009 hampered the Sox, and probably cost them a few victories. It was clear when the season ended after a three-game sweep at the hands of the Angels in the ALDS, Epstein wanted to shore up the shortstop position during the offseason.

Enter Scutaro.

"Marco will do a good job. I think the fans, and the media, will quickly realize what we like so much about him," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona.

A year ago at this time, the Red Sox thought they had two shortstops fighting for the starting job. Both Julio Lugo and Jed Lowrie suffered injuries in the early part of the season, forcing the Sox to go with utility man Nick Green for the first half of the year until the club acquired Alex Gonzalez in August.

Marco Scutaro
"It's been great. He's a communicator, like me, and that's important," said Marco Scutaro about his double-play partner, Dustin Pedroia.

With Scutaro in the mix, Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia will have a consistent double-play partner. When asked how long he thinks it will take for the middle infielders to get comfortable with one another, Francona was quick with his answer.

"Very easily and very quickly," he said. "We've seen Pedey, a lot, and now we're seeing Marco go about his business. He's pretty good, and there's a reason why he's here. It's nice, though, to see it in person. We've seen him from across the other dugout, but when you do drills, and if you ask Pedey, already it's been very seamless."

Pedroia said the relationship with his new shortstop is already a solid one, and the two expect to work very well together.

"It's been great. He's a communicator, like me, and that's important," said Scutaro. "He's a special player. How he does some of the things he does, I don't know how he does it. You wouldn't teach kids to do it that way."

Having a strong presence up the middle will help the pitchers' confidence, too. Too many times last season a ground ball would find its way through the left side of the infield, which must have been very frustrating for the staff.

"It's great," Red Sox ace Josh Beckett said about the new combination. "It gives you that extra confidence to make that 2-1 pitch where it doesn't have to be perfect because you know we have guys who are going to catch the ball. It's not that we haven't had that in the past, just to have guys you are really, really confident in is a comfortable feeling."

Fellow ace Jon Lester agrees.

"I don't think it changes from year to year," said Lester. "These guys are in the big leagues for a reason, regardless of who's back there. We've kind of had a rotating door at short, but everybody who has played, I've felt comfortable with and you're confident they're going to make the plays. Obviously, we've made some improvements this year."

If there's one player in the majors who knows Scutaro the best, and how his abilities will help improve the Red Sox, it's his former long-term teammate, and current Toronto infielder, John McDonald.

Scutaro and McDonald were both drafted by the Indians and honed their skills in Cleveland's minor league system, including Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A. During those development years, McDonald was the shortstop and Scutaro played second.

McDonald made his major league debut with the Indians in 1999. Scutaro didn't reach the big leagues until 2002, when he was with the Mets.

The two reunited with the Blue Jays in 2008, and Scutaro began to play more at short and learned a lot from McDonald.

Scutaro's first-step quickness improved greatly from working with McDonald. They took countless ground balls on a daily basis, something Scutaro is very appreciative of.

"He helped me a lot," said Scutaro. "I watched him every day and his work ethic is amazing the way he prepares every day. When you see a guy working like that, you feel that's the way you should do it, too. He got me going every day."

Switching infield positions, especially up the middle, can be a tough transition for some. Scutaro put the time in and it didn't take long for McDonald to notice the vast improvements.

"He knew how to play second base, and he knew all the angles and hops, and he knew how it worked over there," explained McDonald. "But, when he came over to shortstop, it's a little different. It's all about range and trying to build range."

Scutaro, now 34, worked hard on building that range, according to McDonald. Over the course of the 2008 season, it was clear Scutaro was improving. Instead of having to backhand a ground ball in the hole, he was able to get in front of it and make an easier play.

"He developed a very good plan to develop more range," said McDonald. "His footwork continued to get better. It was fun to watch a player, I don't want to say at his age, but a player of his maturity in the game keep on growing. A lot of players are really good when they enter their 30s, but then they kind of plateau. Defensively, Marco kept on growing and it was fun to watch."

Because Scutaro was playing well, McDonald's role changed to more of a utility man.

"It was easier to sit on the bench, watching a player that you knew prepared himself to play offensively and defensively every day. He didn't take many days off from ground balls, because he knew it would help him continue to get better," McDonald said.

Now that he's with the Red Sox, Scutaro and Pedroia are already feeling comfortable working together. During infield drills it appears the two have been partners for more than just one week.

"He's a very smart baseball player and it's always fun to be around players like that," said McDonald. "With his work habits, and how he's gotten better as a player, I wouldn't be surprised if he kept on taking off. I know Red Sox fans can be tough on their shortstops because they have been in the past, but Marco's the type of player that has a really good perspective on baseball and life. Red Sox fans are really going to enjoy watching him."

The Red Sox players will, too.

Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.