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Team meeting may have inspired Sox
If the Red Sox rally to make the postseason, they might look back to a players-only meeting on May 11 as a turning point.
The night before, right-hander Josh Beckett had allowed seven runs in 2 1/3 innings and the Sox had lost to the Indians at Fenway Park 8-3.
Designated hitter David Ortiz, the team's longest-tenured member, called the meeting, and apparently it was a doozy.
"Heated," was the adjective one player used.
The hitters challenged the pitchers to "step it up," according to two sources. The overall theme was that each player needed to take responsibility.
The effect was immediate, and positive.
The Red Sox won their next five games, and since the meeting have won seven of nine overall.
There is no way to know how the rest of their season will play out, whether the Sox will surge after their injured players return or whether manager Bobby Valentine, after a rocky first seven weeks, will find the right touch.
But one criticism of the Sox toward the end of last season was that some of their players acted with a sense of entitlement. The fried-chicken-and-beer episode was the most vivid example of such behavior.
On May 11, led by Ortiz, the players took a stand.
Maybe it was a start.
ON THE MEND
Both the Red Sox and Phillies are playing better of late, and as their injured players return, the effect could be the equivalent of one trade deadline addition after another.
Third baseman Kevin Youkilis is expected to rejoin the Red Sox on Tuesday, and three other prominent contributors — closer Andrew Bailey and outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford — could be back between late June and mid-July.
In all, the Sox have 12 players on the disabled list, one fewer than the Padres, who lead the majors. The difference is the injured Sox players are earning more than $77 million combined, while the Padres' entire payroll is $55 million.
As for the Phillies, second baseman Chase Utley has tested his knees by taking groundballs three of the past four days, while first baseman Ryan Howard is in Florida performing a variety of baseball activities.
Both could be back sometime in June.
I often ask players on new teams which of their new teammates impress them the most. Phillies infielder Ty Wigginton mentioned catcher Carlos Ruiz, and not simply because Ruiz is batting .358 with a 1.007 OPS.
"He would still be my answer even if he was hitting .200 right now," Wigginton said. "The intensity level that he plays with on a nightly basis is off the charts. He's prepared. He's special."
Ruiz, 33, added strength in the offseason, but fellow catcher Brian Schneider says Ruiz also has developed into a professional hitter, using all fields, hitting well with even two strikes.
The major-league batting average with two strikes is .175. Ruiz’s average in those counts last season was .220. This season, in 50 at-bats, he's batting .260 with three home runs and 10 RBIs.
Ruiz, by the way, is eligible for free agency after the 2013 season, as are Utley and right fielder Hunter Pence.
REFUSING TO FALL FOR A MANAGER'S DEKE
Another one of my favorite things is asking rookies how they learned of their callup to the majors.
The Phillies' Jake Diekman, a left-handed reliever, tells a great story.
A week ago Friday in Indianapolis, the Phillies' Triple-A manager, Ryne Sandberg, and pitching coach, Rod Nichols, summoned Diekman to a meeting.
Sandberg told Diekman he had heard reports of Diekman and his roommate, Phillipe Aumont, causing a commotion in the hallway at the team hotel the night before.
Dieman protested, saying he was in his room, but Sandberg went on for several minutes, claiming this and that.
Finally, Sandberg stopped.
"I can't do this anymore," he told Diekman. "You just got called up."
PIERRE HANGS IN THERE
Phillies outfielder Juan Pierre lingered on the free-agent market until Jan. 27, and even then signed only a minor league contract.
Yet, he did not fear his career might be over at 34.
"I was at peace," Pierre says. "My faith comes first, my family second. Much as I like to play, if it was time to say goodbye, it was time to say goodbye.
"I wasn't worried, strange as that might sound. Even in spring training, I didn't know which way they were going to go. I was prepared either way."
The Phillies' choice came down to Pierre or Scott Podsednik. Manuel wanted Pierre, and Pierre, batting .327 with a .735 OPS, has made the most of his opportunity.
"Here, I always look at it like, 'I'm not even supposed to be here,'" Pierre says. "They have nothing invested in me. I could be gone at any time. I'll guarantee you, they weren't looking at me to be a part of the team the way I have."
GALVIS GALVANIZES PHILS
Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins told me that Freddy Galvis reminds him of Roberto Alomar at second base — high praise, considering Galvis played short almost exclusively in four minor league seasons and never played second.
The Alomar comparison stems mostly from Galvis' uncanny instincts. General manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. says Galvis "has more baseball sense than some of our guys who have been here five, six, seven years." Manager Charlie Manuel says Galvis has a knack for being around the ball.
"Every day when I make out the lineup, I think he's going to save us runs," Manuel says. "I mean that, too. He's been that good."
Galvis, batting .242 with a .690 OPS, hit his second homer in two games and third of the season Saturday night.
The Phillies think he will develop into a successful hitter — Galvis shows bat speed, he's getting stronger and he has enough aptitude to teach himself to become a productive player.
AVILES SEIZES THE DAY
Remember the spring training debate over whether the Red Sox should go with rookie Jose Iglesias or veteran Mike Aviles at shortstop?
They chose Aviles and clearly made the right call.
While Iglesias continues to refine his offensive game at Triple-A, Aviles is batting .272 with a .781 OPS and is tied for the major league lead among shortstops with 25 RBI.
Is Aviles a long-term answer? Highly doubtful. Iglesias, an elite defender, is the future. But while Aviles might never look smooth at short, Sox officials says he is playing even better defensively than he was at the start of the season.
Aviles arrived in a trade last July 30. Since then, Sox coaches Tim Bogar and Jerry Royster have helped him improve his footwork, and second baseman Dustin Pedroia has given him numerous pointers.
This is Aviles' first extended time at short since 2009, when he was with the Royals. He says he feels like a "kid in a candy store" to be back at his old position.
"Every day I'm a little more comfortable, knowing what balls I can get, what balls I can't get," says Aviles, who originally was acquired for a super-utility role.
"Playing one position, it's easier to understand the hops, the ins and outs. I'm very realistic about what I can and can't do. I know my limitations. I'm just trying to stay within myself."
FOR BYRD, A NEW BEGINNING
The Red Sox's Marlon Byrd was 3 for 43 when the Cubs traded him to the Red Sox on April 21 — an .070 batting average.
The change in leagues — and do-over on his statistics — allowed him a fresh start.
"If I had gone to another National League team, I still would have seen .070," Byrd says. "Getting a clean slate, seeing everything new was nice."
Byrd, playing mostly against left-handers, is batting .280 with a .624 OPS since joining the Red Sox.
He makes a point of saying how much he appreciates the way the Cubs treated him. Manager Dale Sveum continued to play Byrd when he was struggling, respecting him as a veteran. The front office then showed Byrd similar deference, sending him to a perennial contender.
RED SOX'S NAVA: AN ENLIGHTENED MAN
Nava, 29, appeared in 60 games for the Sox that season, but spent all of '11 in the minors. The team even designated him for assignment on May 20, but Nava cleared waivers and stayed with the Sox at Triple-A.
At that point, Nava rethought his priorities.
"Baseball had become everything to me — my identity," he says. "But my faith is my No. 1 thing. I got wrapped up with trying to get back to the big leagues. Once I got things in the proper perspective, it allowed me to play the game with freedom.
"I want to leave it all out on the field."