When the Red Sox’ offense began to come to life during a 10-game homestand earlier this month, Kevin Youkilis — following the lead of others like Dustin Pedroia — picked a moment with reporters to point out that it was the media, and not the players, who questioned whether the Boston bats would offer up enough production in 2010.
He did not do it at the time, but Youkilis should’ve winked. It would have made his current hot stretch that much cooler, as if he knew what was coming.
There is no need to debate the lineup’s potency anymore, due in large part to Youkilis, who is putting forth one of the best offensive months in team history and asserting himself early on into the MVP debate.
With a two-run homer and two runs scored in Monday’s 6-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rays — a win that included several defensive gems from Youkilis — the All-Star first baseman continued a torrid pace.
Youkilis is hitting .388 (26-for-67) with seven home runs and 17 RBIs in the month of May, and the numbers within the numbers may be even more impressive: Youkilis has drawn 25 walks against only nine strikeouts in 22 games this month, scoring 23 times.
"He’s swinging the bat great. Long at-bats and everything he hits is on the barrel," Pedroia said. "He always does, he finds himself in a hitter’s count all the time. He’s such a patient hitter."
The number of free passes ranks third behind on-base bastions Carl Yastrzemski (30 in 1970) and Wade Boggs (28 in 1988) for the most drawn by a Red Sox player in one month since 1952. And Youk has six games to go before the calendar turns.
"He’s been terrific," said manager Terry Francona. "He’s a good hitter that feels good about himself, he doesn’t give at bats away, fouls balls off. … He’s been terrific."
Not to take anything away from designated hitter David Ortiz — who has roughly matched Youkilis’s production this month with eight home runs and 19 RBIs — but what sets Youkilis apart and keeps him in that MVP debate (Youkilis, Joe Mauer, Albert Pujols and Ryan Howard are the only major leaguers to have finished in the top six in MVP voting two years in a row) is what he does with the glove.
Choosing not to rest on his laurels, the 2007 Gold Glove Award winner made a series of outstanding defensive plays on Monday, even one when the game was all but over, ranging far to his left to field a grounder before wheeling and firing to Daniel Bard covering first for the second out in the ninth.
"I just try to work on things and try to better myself each day," Youkilis said recently when asked what has spurred his quality play of late. "Some days it works out, and some days it doesn’t."
It has worked out almost every day of late, despite the fact that Youkilis has taken his fair share of lumps. On Friday in Philadelphia he fouled a ball off his leg so hard that his "Owww!" was likely audible from the parking lot outside Citizens Bank Park, and his limp just as noticeable in the Red Sox clubhouse. Two days later, on his third triple of the season (no other Red Sox player has even one), he jammed his knee sliding into third and was hit in the neck with the relay throw before he could even stand up.
The Red Sox were 15-14 on May 6, certainly afloat but about to begin a stretch in which they would play seven straight teams with winning records, the majority of them on the road. It was a significant test for a team that had yet to show it could contend in 2010.
Boston is now 10-7 in that span after Monday’s victory. And it is no coincidence that Youkilis is ignoring his bumps and bruises, batting .373 and playing Gold Glove-caliber defense to carry the club through the gauntlet.
That’s what MVPs do.