LOWELL — Players and coaches from both teams crowded around home plate, watching J.D. Drew blast pitch after pitch over the wall with a simple flick of his wrists.
It was the picture-perfect swing that the Red Sox hope to see return for the World Series run this fall, and the swing that had been absent for nearly the entire season.
"I know what I am still capable of when I am healthy and feeling good," said Drew in a one-on-one interview after the batting practice display at LeLacheur Park. "It's (Red Sox manager Terry) Francona's job to put the lineup together. But I have played the game long enough to know. I want to get back and contribute for the Red Sox."
Drew took the first step towards returning to the Red Sox lineup last night, with a rehab start for the Lowell Spinners, who lost to Tri-City, 8-4.
With Hurricane Irene heading our way, Drew's next stop will likely be Pawtucket.
The designated hitter went 0 for 2 with a walk and was hit by a pitch.
Each of the veteran outfielder's at-bats was met with loud cheers, and a spattering of boos that follow one of the most polarizing Red Sox players in decades.
He has suffered through, by his own admission, a very rough season.
"This has been maybe the toughest season for me," he said. "I had a decent May, then after that I was battling to have one good at-bat a game."
Through 77 games this year, Drew, 35, was scuffling through the worst slump of his 14-year major league career. He was hitting a career-low .219, including just .146 in July, with only four home runs and had lost his full-time starting job to then-red hot Josh Reddick.
"I was having bad at-bats and wasn't feeling good," he said. "I hurt my shoulder before spring training, and the wear and tear of playing every day made it worse and was causing me to have really bad habits.
"I was playing with a torn labrum and problems with my AC joint (top of the shoulder). My shoulder was so weak, I had to make a decision to go on the DL."
Placed on the DL on July 19, Drew has been a spectator as the Red Sox have battled to remain in first place.
"They guys have been playing great," he said. "But it feels different when you are not on the roster. I want to be back and contribute to a playoff run and hopefully the World Series."
While he admits to still suffering from some pain in his shoulder, he expects to continue his rehab and return to the Sox lineup when rosters expand at the beginning of September.
Drew acknowledged the criticism, which has followed him since he signed his five-year, $70 million deal before the 2007, has been especially loud during his struggles this season. One fan in the stands yelled "see you back on the DL" during his first at-bat last night.
"Everyone goes through bad times," he said. "You have to try to continue to push forward and do the little things to get back. My whole goal is to get healthy and be able to swing again."
While he wasn't about to publicly demand his spot back in right field, Drew also made it clear he has not written off the 2011 season.
"There is still a lot of baseball to play between September and the postseason," he said. "It always seems like one big hit can decide a playoff series."
Left unsaid is, to his credit, he's had more than his fair share of those big hits.
Despite his often rocky stay Boston (.264 average in 602 games), he said he has no regrets.
"I have really enjoyed it," he said. "It has been a great group of guys, a good manager and GM and an owner committed to winning. The run in 2007 was amazing."
Drew added he has not made any decisions about his career past this season, when his contract is up.
One of the members of the crowd watching batting practice was Spinners star Garin Cecchini, the No. 15 prospect in the Red Sox system, who was sure to take mental notes.
"As a left-handed hitter, watching him take BP was so impressive," said Cecchini. "You try to learn as much as you can from a guy like that. He is where we want to be. You want to learn about how to get to the big leagues and stay there."