BOSTON -- For all of the gifts of this perennial Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, it also denies us. Amid the tension, drama and ordinarily high-level play, there is the absence of nurturing.When either team has a hole to fill, it goes out to find top-shelf solutions. This simply is the impetuous law of this jungle. This isn't a rose garden for homegrown talent. Thus, the Yankees replace an Aaron Boone with an Alex Rodriguez, a Gary Sheffield with a Bobby Abreu, a Bernie Williams with a Johnny Damon, and so on. And the Red Sox get a J.D. Drew for Trot Nixon's footsteps, a Mike Lowell for Bill Mueller's and, in an ongoing search for a solution around the keystone, keep returning to the revolving door of middle infielders. If Orlando Cabrera doesn't work out at short, they get Edgar Renteria, then Alex Gonzalez, then Julio Lugo. At second, they go from Todd Walker to Mark Bellhorn to Mark Loretta. Then, the revolving door jams for some reason. And this is how we get to Dustin Pedroia, the type of 5-foot-9, 23-year-old who usually is a placemat in The Rivalry. Perhaps second base was merely an afterthought for Boston general manager Theo Epstein, who dedicated his offseason to bagging Daisuke Matsuzaka and replacing Gonzalez. But, now, Pedroia is in the forefront for the runaway American League East leaders, a little guy doing things big enough to make people rub their eyes in astonishment. Sunday night here, he figuratively lost one to the biggest guy. Three innings after his three-run double off The Green Monster's farthest reaches had keyed a five-run fifth, Pedroia's two-out screamer to right-center somehow found the tip of the webbing of Abreu's glove, stopping two potential runs racing around the bases in their tracks. A little later, Rodriguez took Jonathan Papelbon on virtually the same fly pattern, only a bit deeper, to jolt the Yankees dugout on this long night's journey into the next day. Rodriguez, the $252 million man, comes from The Rivalry central casting. Pedroia, who makes in a season about what A-Rod makes in a day-night doubleheader, does not. Yet, Pedroia has been stealing the show for Boston. He is hitting .489 (23-for-47) during a 13-game hitting streak. More impressively, he has hit .460 over his last 23 games. Most impressively, he was hitting .172 prior to this stretch, which has pumped his average to .336. Just like flipping a switch, eh? "I'm not doing much differently, just playing the game," Pedroia said deferentially in a Boston clubhouse hushed by the loss of the 6-5 fight to New York. "That's about it." However, Red Sox captain Jason Varitek has seen the effort behind the rise. "He's worked his way into it," Varitek said. "He's done it with hard work, and he's been going out there and doing a great job. It is impressive." So, the man who would be a David (Eckstein) is turning into a Goliath. Most are well familiar with Boston's experience with Eckstein, another diminutive middle-infield prospect let through waivers to Anaheim, where he became an admired star.
The Red Sox weren't going to make that mistake again. But attributing Pedroia's presence merely to a lesson learned could be wrong. The Sox inserted him into a low-stress situation late last season when they were already in their infamous injury-greased slide, with no promise that he would have a chance for any more than the usual placemat duties.When Gonzalez went down with an oblique strain on Aug. 22, Pedroia made his sheepish way into the Boston clubhouse to play out their string, a bit at short, mostly at second. Only those privy to behind-the-scenes stuff know to what extent Epstein canvassed the offseason market for a veteran second baseman. All that matters is Pedroia hung around to become Boston's first Opening Day position player since 2001. He was also the 13th different starting second baseman in 14 Opening Days. Well, yeah, the others aged out of the job. That shouldn't be a problem for a while with this one. Without doubt, Pedroia is sneaking up on people who may have written him off after his transparent (.182) April. Especially when they realized how perfectly that mirrored his first five big-league weeks, as he hit .191 down the 2006 wire. They must have figured, "Okay, this is what we're going to get." People who know the game, who know how time and experience become the yeast of rising talent -- or who knew Pedroia -- knew better. Boston manager Terry Francona cautioned back in Spring Training, "In April, we might not see the player we're going to see." San Diego reliever Cla Meredith, who partnered with Pedroia in the Boston farm system prior to being dealt to the Padres, was even more effusive. "Don't sell him short -- pardon the pun," Meredith had said. "He's going to open some eyes and he's going to do some things that will make you go, 'Wow.'" We're all going, "Wow!" Dustin is wowing the league on both ends of the ball, having also played an errorless second base for 37 consecutive games. But, little guys are supposed to excel at picking it and throwing it. They are not meant to have wall punch -- the reason why guys like Fred Patek become instant celebrities when they do muscle a few balls over it. In truth, Pedroia has hit his whole life. In three years at Arizona State University, he never hit lower than .347. During his steady climb up the Minor League ladder, he hit .357 in Single-A, .324 in Double-A and .289 in Triple-A. "He's got some pop in there," said Varitek. "But as much pop as he shows occasionally, he controls the bat very well. That's the key for him." On that near game-winner, it was hard to conclude who was more surprised: Abreu, for having to tear back for the drive off the little guy's bat, or Pedroia, because Abreu caught up with it. "I crushed it," Pedroia said with a shrug. "But the wind was blowing in, and it was raining. I thought it was over his head, but he made a good play." Perhaps mindful of a 10 1/2-game lead over the division and a lead of 12 1/2 games over the Yankees, Pedroia added, "No big deal." Neither is he. The real little deal, yes.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.