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Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Red Sox hit on a new strategy

By Gordon Edes
ESPNBoston.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Red Sox have five left-handed hitters in their everyday lineup, plus a switch-hitting catcher who will bat from the left side against right-handed pitchers. There may be games, judging from the lineups manager Terry Francona has been using here, where as many as three lefties bat in succession: first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, DH David Ortiz and outfielder J.D. Drew.

A problem?

"Maybe we're going with the Bruce Bochy 'We're going to bombard the right-handed starting pitcher and we'll worry about the lefties after we get an 8-0 lead,''' said Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan, who worked for Bochy with the San Diego Padres. "That was Boch's philosophy. He didn't care that much about left, right, left, right. He was more 'Let me get my best hitters up there hitting in the top five and we'll worry about the rest of the stuff later.'"

Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Gonzalez
Manager Terry Francona has said he considers Adrian Gonzalez (left) and Kevin Youkilis interchangeable in the No. 4 and No. 5 spots of the batting order.

With Gonzalez having started playing in games just over a week ago, Francona didn't roll out what is expected to be his regular lineup until Sunday, and he tweaked it Tuesday night, when he flip-flopped Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis -- Youkilis batting cleanup against Rays left-hander David Price, with Gonzalez hitting in the No. 5 hole.

Francona has said that he considers Gonzalez and Youkilis interchangeable in the No. 4 and No. 5 spots. He said the same about Dustin Pedroia and Carl Crawford in the No. 2 and No. 3 spots. And Francona has not ceded the option of making further tweaks, though he has declared his intentions of having Jacoby Ellsbury leading off.

"How about Ellsbury, Crawford, Youks, Adrian and Petey?'' Magadan said, throwing out an option for the sake of discussion. "You'd have left-left at the start, but then right, left, right, left [Ortiz].''

Francona has always endorsed the idea of a balanced lineup, but most teams would gladly settle for having his "problem" finding that with this lineup, which many scouts passing through Florida this spring have called the strongest in the league.

And this lineup has yet to round into hitting form. The everyday players (we'll count both catchers, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek) have combined to hit just six home runs, or two fewer than Jake Fox of the Orioles. Ellsbury is leading the way with two. Crawford and Youkilis have had one extra-base hit apiece this spring, each doubling once. Gonzalez has two singles in his first 14 at-bats.

Is anyone worried? Of course not, though Magadan suggested that the time missed by Pedroia and Youkilis last season because of injury is probably a factor.

Dustin Pedroia
Offensively, Dustin Pedroia is still finding his way. "He's been getting his hits this spring, but he doesn't feel good at the plate," said Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan.

"You've got to realize with Petey and Youk, Petey hasn't played basically since [the end of June], except when he came back and played a couple of games, and Youk missed from the start of August,'' Magadan said.

"Youk, usually the first week of games he struggles a little bit, then as spring goes on, he turns it on. It's taken him a little longer this spring. He's still searching a little bit. There have been a lot of rollovers to his pull side, which is strange, because the first game of spring, and I know it was against a college pitcher, but he drove one out the other way. You're thinking, 'Oh, he's going to tear it up,' but it's gone the other way.''

Pedroia had two doubles Tuesday night against the Rays and is batting .311 overall, but Magadan said the second baseman isn't where he wants to be yet, either.

"He's been getting his hits this spring, but he doesn't feel good at the plate,'' Magadan said. "He's got good enough hand-eye coordination, he can manipulate his bat head and get the barrel on the ball and get his base hits, but as far as driving the ball he hasn't really felt that way.''

Wednesday, Boston's only scheduled day off of the spring, Gonzalez was down in the minor league complex, collecting some extra at-bats as a DH.

"He's coming along,'' Magadan said of a player who had surgery on his right shoulder after last season. "He's still trying to find his timing. He didn't have that four days of hitting off live pitching, which everybody else did.

"It's an adjustment. He's still learning. Most of the guys he's faced here he's never faced before. He'll be all right. He's had some good at-bats, he's hit some balls good the other way. For him, it's kind of a process. He's not worried about the results, he's just trying to feel good, hit the ball the other way. But he's been a little frustrated by the balls he's tried to pull and rolled over on."

Jacoby Ellsbury
Jacoby Ellsbury seems to be making up for lost time at the plate. "What we're seeing now is what we were going to see in 2010. You see his maturity, he's gotten stronger, he's learned himself as a hitter more,'' said Magadan.

Ellsbury missed more time than both Youkilis and Pedroia, playing in just 18 games last season because of fractured ribs, but that has not kept him from having a great spring.

"I think Ells, you look at his progression from '08 to '09, to me 2010 was going to be taking his game to the next level,'' Magadan said. "What we're seeing now is what we were going to see in 2010. You see his maturity, he's gotten stronger, he's learned himself as a hitter more.''

Ellsbury has yet to reach double figures in home runs. That could easily change this season. "He's got it in him,'' Magadan said.

Balanced lineup? While the AL East has its share of tough left-handed starters -- CC Sabathia of the Yankees, the Rays' Price, Brian Matusz of the Orioles, Ricky Romero of the Jays -- the division isn't exactly abounding with shutdown lefty relievers. The Yankees have two of the better lefty relievers in newly acquired Pedro Feliciano and Boone Logan, but beyond that the pickings are pretty slim. With the Red Sox, those 8-0 leads may proliferate more than Bochy ever imagined.

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.