June 28, 2006

One of the shining stars of the Red Sox season thus far is first baseman Kevin Youkilis. Over the winter, after kissing Kevin Millar‘s lard a$$ goodbye, I think the Sox had confidence in Youk make the full-time transition from third and do the job, but, just to be on the safe side, they also signed free-agent J.T. Snow with the intention that the two would likely split time between first over the season. (Snow was also acquired as an insurance policy in case the newly-acquired Mike Lowell‘s offensive woes in 2005 weren’t just a one-time thing.)

Boy, do things look different come the end of June.

Let’s first take a look at the hot corner: not only is Lowell playing arguably the best defensive third base in the American League (far better in my view than that perennial stiff/choker Alex Rodriguez), but he’s been cranking out doubles about as often as Gilbert, AZ does 100-degree days, and kept his average above .300 all season. Unless the injury bug rears its ugly head, manager Terry Francona should have nothing to worry about from this position for the rest of the year.

And over on the other side of the diamond? Hard to deny that Youk has surpassed nearly everyone’s expections. Not only has his defense been rock-solid, but he has become a fixture at the top of the Sox’ line-up. This is, in my view, one of the keys to Sox’ offensive success this year. Originally, Covelli Loyce (!) (Coco) Crisp was expected to replace that money-grubbing Yankee traitor Johnny Damon in the lead-off position – and he started out that way – but when he got injured a few games into the season, Youk took his slot and has garfed onto it like a sea leopard on an unsuspecting emperor penguin (yes, I watched “March of the Penguins” the other night).

Even after Coco returned, it took only a few games for Francona to realize that re-inserting Youk in the lead-off position served three vital purposes:

1) Youk’s command of the hitting zone and his high on-base (.422) and slugging (.496) percentages (both higher than traitor Damon’s, BTW) exploits Mark Loretta‘s bat-handling skills and helps set the table for big dogs David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez;

2) By putting Coco down to eighth (!) in the order the power in the Red Sox line-up gets extended in a very! big! way!;

3) Youk’s hitting presence gives the ninth hitter (more often than not, shortstop Alex Gonzalez) better pitches to hit. You can already see the difference, as the normally-anemic hitting A-Gon has pushed his average up 75 points (to .267) in the last few weeks.

Most people figured that losing Damon and third baseman Bill Mueller (now on the DL for the Dodgers) would cost the Sox in offense this year, but largely due to Youk, the Sox actually have a more well-balanced attack than they did last year, with the benefit of a much improved defense. If the Sox can figure out a way to jettison the disppointing Rudy Seanez, reduce Julian Tavarez‘ overall exposure, and pick up another reliable veteran arm for the bullpen around the All-Star break, they will be a force to contend with the rest of the year. And it’s really all because of one guy.

In Youk we trust.

Filed in: Golf & Sports by The Great White Shank at 14:48 | Comments (0)
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