Little big man: Pedroia makes noise with mouth, play for Sox
Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia is a leading MVP candidate
He slumped badly in the ALDS against the Angels, getting just one hit
Pedroia has gained respect for his scrappy play and tough attitude
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- It's 2004, and Stanford's Jed Lowrie is taking some ground balls before a late-season game against Arizona State. By this time, Lowrie has heard all about ASU's mouthy shortstop, Dustin Pedroia, a rival for the Pac-10 Player of the Year award. Now, he's about to hear from him.
"He's stretching out in left field, getting ready for the game, and I'm taking ground balls, just talking with some of my teammates," Lowrie recalls now, "and he says, loud enough that I can hear, 'That's Jed Lowrie?'"
And that's how Lowrie, Boston's rookie shortstop, remembers his first close-up encounter with Pedroia, the Red Sox second baseman and the loosely presumptive American League Most Valuable Player. It began, as it often seems to with Pedroia, with some trash-talk.
The Red Sox are a step away from another World Series, a few wins away from becoming the first team since the 2000-01 Yankees to have a chance to repeat, and in the middle of the charge again, both literally and small-figuratively, is Pedroia. He is 5-feet-not-quite-9 of chatter and stubble and receding hairline, a blur of in-your-face, on-his-stomach, no-apologies attitude. Where the Sox used to be Big Papi and Manny and Schilling and the Idiots, they are now best personified by their yappy, dynamic, diminutive MVP candidate.
Pedroia's game isn't always pretty. His swing is too long, his uniform too dirty, his mouth virtually unstoppable. But that big-man's swing of his works like few other's (he had the highest average for a rookie second baseman ever last year, at .317, and he finished at .326 this year, two points behind Minnesota's Joe Mauer for the AL batting crown). His wide-ranging, belly-flopping defense is often as breathtaking as it is game-saving.
More than any of that, though, Pedroia's pure pugnaciousness has infected the whole team. If the Red Sox are going to get past the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL Championship Series -- it begins here Friday night -- Pedroia is going to have a major say in it.
You'll hear from him. Count on it.
"It's kind of a joke, him yelling around and screaming, talking s---," says Boston infielder Kevin Youkilis, himself a legitimate MVP candidate. "It's not like anything malicious. It can be somebody he likes on the other team. We'll talk s--- back to him, too. 'Shut up, Pedey. Sit down.' It's all a joke. It's all in good fun."
As funny as it might be -- to some -- Pedroia takes these things very seriously. He is a tireless worker, an endless preparer, totally immersed in his team. And when the game doesn't go well you'll hear about that, too. "When we don't win, he gets mad," Boston manager Terry Francona says. "This is the way he's been his whole life."
Pedroia's utter confidence in his abilities is borne out of years of proving people wrong. He's been doubted -- mainly because of his size, sometimes because of that long swing -- his whole life; in high school in California, at Arizona State, in the minors, in Boston. Last year, after Francona awarded him the job as starting second baseman, Pedroia hit .182 in April. Fenway Park was awash in boos.
But as he always does, Pedroia warmed up, and even after that horrible April, he played so well that he was named the AL Rookie of the Year. This year, after another sluggish start (.260 in May), Pedroia came on to hit .375 in his final 89 games, with a .588 slugging percentage. Nobody with a minimum of 250 at-bats in that timeframe -- not Albert Pujols, not Manny Ramirez, not Ichiro -- had a better batting average.
Still, Pedroia remains his harshest critic. Another Lowrie story:
"Someone on the mound threw him a fastball right down the middle and he missed it. Popped it up or something. And he comes out to second base and says, 'I just missed a 90 mph fastball right down the middle. I'm the worst .300 hitter in the league,'" Lowrie says, recalling an incident this summer. "It's almost like a Yogiism. 'The worst .300 hitter in the league.' It doesn't make any sense. But to him, it makes perfect sense.
"There's times he's 3-for-3 in the game and he makes an out and he's [upset] that he made an out. He's just a guy that expects so much out of himself every at-bat that it doesn't matter if he's 0-for-15 or 10-for-15."
As good as Pedroia was in the regular season, he was as terrible in Boston's division series win over the Angels. He went into Game 4 without a hit, and ended up with only one (a run-scoring double) in 17 at-bats, an .059 average. In Game 3 in Boston, he failed to so much as even move a runner over with nobody out. Twice. "It's just more of their pitches were good pitches. Pitcher's pitches," he says, back to his locker, bat in his hand in a packed visiting clubhouse at Tropicana Field. "And sometimes that happens. You go through a time where you're not getting good pitches over the plate to hit, and it's more credit to them."
One of the benefits of Pedroia's success in the regular season is that no one is freaking out about how he has done so far this postseason. It helps that Pedroia has had rough times in the division series before and snapped out of it. Last October, he hit just .154 against the Angels in the ALDS before breaking out, hitting .345 and crushing a game-changing home run in Game 7 against the Indians in the ALCS.
Pedroia's friends will joke with him about the inevitable slump -- though he doesn't much think it's funny -- knowing that he always finds a way out of it. "It's good to go through something like that, though definitely not in the playoffs," he says. "But hopefully, this series, I can have a lot better series, get on base and score runs."
No player in the wild card era has won the MVP award and reached the World Series in the same season. Since 1995, in fact, only one player who was to be named MVP that year was from a team that made it out of the first round. That was Ichiro, with the Mariners, in 2001. Seattle flamed out in the ALCS.
Whatever happens, it's clear that Pedroia's teammates recognize how valuable he is. He played in more games (157), had more hits (213) and scored more runs (118) than anyone on the team. And, of course, he's hacked off more opponents and been the source of more guffaws than anyone in a Boston uniform, too.
"If Varitek got up and started screaming at somebody, then I would be like, 'Oh s---,' because Jason doesn't say as much," Youkilis says of Boston's veteran catcher. "Whereas, Pedey, it's a fun-loving energy. He probably knows half of them would probably kick his ass."
Back in 2004, when Pedroia was introducing himself in his inimitable, irritating fashion, Lowrie -- who later would be named the Pac-10 Player of the Year -- could do nothing more than shake his head. "I think I turned around," Lowrie says now with a smile, "and said, 'That's Dustin Pedroia?'"
Now he knows. Now, everybody knows.