EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 28, 2008

The New Dirt Dogs

Youkilis, Pedroia get it done the old-fashioned way

Bill Burt

BOSTON — It has been an eventful Boston Red Sox season, which, of course, is pretty much par for the course.

The world champions' defense of their crown started with Curt Schilling's dead arm and his disagreement with the Red Sox team doctors' diagnosis before spring training even started.

Along the way, came the pain-in-the-neck trip to Japan at the start of the season, followed by David Ortiz's "clicking" left wrist, Josh Beckett's ailing right elbow, Jacoby Ellsbury's and Hideki Okajima's sophomore slumps, Mike Lowell's achy hip and oblique muscle, J.D. Drew's usual summer respite/injury woes and, last but definitely not least, Manny Ramirez having one too many "Manny Being Manny" episodes.

That's a lot of bad stuff, the kind of "stuff" that will end the New York Yankees' season today, right here at Fenway Park.

But here we are, on the final day of the regular season, and the Red Sox have a morning flight for Anaheim for playoff baseball.

Two things have remained constant, almost from the opening pitch in Tokyo on March 25.

Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis, the newest Dirt Dogs.

That term began in 2001 with Brian Daubach and Trot Nixon ... and these two are worthy successors.

Gritty, tough, overachieving, gamers, name the term and it applies.

"We talk about the Ortizes and the Becketts all of the time, because of their importance on this team — and don't get me wrong, those two guys are horses," said Red Sox backup first baseman Sean Casey. "But I can pretty much guarantee that we wouldn't be on a plane to Anaheim if it wasn't for Youk and Peedy (Pedroia). They're amazing, man. Every day, every game you can count on those guys."

It has been a tad late, but the rest of baseball has finally caught on. Both should be among the top five when the American League MVP voting is announced in late October.

That's right, M-V-P, both of them.

The two first-time All-Stars are among league leaders in nearly every batting category.

"I really am embarrassed to say that I didn't know Peedy was that good," said recently acquired Red Sox pitcher Paul Byrd. "I thought he was pesky ... you know, a guy that scratches here and there, makes a few plays.

"But he's better than that. He's an amazing player. He can hit for power. He's a Gold Glove fielder. And you should hear the guy in the dugout. The guy is a talker, too. He's a great player in this league."

Youkilis is no slouch himself.

"Youk has been incredible, the way he has stepped in with his power numbers this year," said Lowell, who says he will be ready to start at third base when the playoffs open in Anaheim on Wednesday or Thursday. "We lose Manny and a lot of people are concerned. And then I go out for a while ... Youk has stepped up. That's what great players do."

Pedroia has improved in every category over his Rookie of the Year season, most especially in his power numbers (he had 8 HRs and 50 RBIs in '07). Youkilis has basically become a power hitter right before our eyes (he had only 16 HRs and 84 RBIs in '07).

But start throwing numbers around these two and the conversation tends to end quickly.

"The numbers don't matter," said Pedroia. "What if I go 3 for 3 and we lose? Do you think I'm happy? Or how about if I go 0 for 4 but I make a play in the field and we win? You bet I'm happy. This is about winning."

Youkilis is a little more forgiving when "the numbers" are brought up.

"Sure, they're great and I'm happy with the way the season has gone," said Youkilis. "But I'm happy because we're winning, we're headed toward the playoffs. That's why you play this game ... to win a World Series."

Like the Dominican Duo of Ortiz and Ramirez, who batted third and fourth, it is easy to put Pedroia and Youkilis in some sort of duo category, like the Dirt Dog Duo.

"I like that," said Casey. "It's true. They don't look pretty all the time but the job gets done. If 'Dirt Dog' means doing whatever it takes, and getting your uniform dirty doing it, then they are it."

Another trait both share is the ability to bat anywhere in the lineup.

While Ellsbury was struggling, manager Terry Francona slipped Pedroia into the leadoff spot seamlessly. And when Francona needed a cleanup hitter when Youkilis missed five games in six days, Pedroia was shockingly inserted into that spot, going 12 for 18 (.667) with four doubles, two HRs and seven RBIs.

The same for Youkilis, who has batted in every spot from leadoff through sixth this season (he was also 0 for 2 in one game as leadoff hitter), recently taking up the cleanup spot formerly held by Ramirez.

"Does that surprise me? No. In fact, it shows how mentally tough they both are," said Casey. "Some guys don't like to be moved around."

The fact that Youkilis and Pedroia play a lot like, with an nasty edge at times, and seem to be around each other so much on the baseball field it would be easy to confuse them for best pals.

In fact, while Youkilis and Pedroia both work out at the same facility, Athletes Performance Institute, in Tempe, Ariz., in the off-season, they aren't bosom buddies.

"I think people think we're best friends because they see us together so much, especially in the field," said Pedroia, referring to him playing second base and Youkilis primarily at first base. "We are good friends, but we don't really hang out a lot outside of baseball. He's got a lot of things going on and so do I. But when we come to the park, we both seem to gravitate toward each other."

While they admit they are lucky to play in Boston, where baseball is king, both would play the same way in Saudi Arabia if that's where the home team played.

"We just love to play baseball," said Youkilis. "It's pretty simple. I know he cares about winning more than anything, just like I do. But so does everyone else on this team. We have a lot of guys that care about the game and doing things right."

"Little brother" Pedroia concurs.

"I think we both take it personal when we don't win," said Pedroia. "We love to play."

Sounds like a duo, doesn't it?

E-mail Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.