Pedroia no less valuable to Red Sox

Pedroia no less valuable to Red Sox

BOSTON -- The numbers probably aren't there for Dustin Pedroia to win a second consecutive American League Most Valuable Player Award. But that doesn't mean he's an less valuable to the Red Sox. When the game is on the line, they want Pedroia at the plate.

The diminutive second baseman again emphasized why on Sunday, belting a two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth that fueled the Red Sox to a 3-1 victory over the Rays in Game 1 of Sunday's doubleheader.

The blast, which snapped a 1-1 tie, was a bit of a stunner in that it went roughly 380 feet to right-center and into the visitors' bullpen, giving Pedroia just the second opposite-field homer of his entire career. Pedroia is the first to admit that he never went deep to the opposite field in college or the Minor Leagues, either.

"I hit one in New York [on Aug. 6], but that's a short field," Pedroia said. "I was just trying to hit the ball in the air, and they've been throwing me away a lot. I just got a pitch a little up, and I just drove it."

In a game highlighted by a terrific pitchers' duel between Clay Buchholz and Matt Garza, the Red Sox (83-58) were grateful for Pedroia's surprising burst of power to the opposite field.

"They were shading the right fielder way in, for obvious reasons," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "Because of the [chance for] a sac fly, and they're going to throw him away and try to cut the runner at the plate. So, off the bat, it looks good, like we're going to get the run in, but it just kept going. You saw his reaction. I don't think he knew he could do it, either."

The inning started with David Ortiz coming off the bench and banging a pinch-hit double off the wall in right. Joey Gathright came on to pinch-run and moved to third on a sacrifice bunt by Jacoby Ellsbury.

Up stepped Pedroia, who got a 2-0 fastball he liked from Garza and mauled it for home run No. 13 on the season.

"That little guy's got some pop," said Buchholz. "He's unbelievable to watch when he's firing on all cylinders. That's why he was the MVP last year, because he can play the field and he can flat-out hit."

With 21 games left in the season, Pedroia is hitting .297 with 100 runs, 163 hits, 43 doubles, 63 RBIs and 17 stolen bases. Last year, he hit .326 with 118 runs, 213 hits, 54 doubles, 17 homers, 83 RBIs and 20 stolen bases.

"I don't put anything past him," said Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan. "He can make these last 21 games seem like the first 140 didn't really matter. He's probably going to end up with his numbers about where they were last year."

And with Pedroia, the numbers only explain part of his value. Is Pedroia as important to the Red Sox this year as he was last year?

"I would say more so," said Francona. "As he grows into a leader, I would think probably more."

Though he didn't have a win to show for it, Buchholz turned in yet another strong performance, allowing five hits and a run over seven innings. He walked three and struck out five.

After taking tough-luck losses against CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander, Buchholz has bounced back to outpitch Roy Halladay and Garza in his past two outings.

"As of right now, I like it," Buchholz said. "It's a fun place to be out there when everything is going good. It's just when adversity strikes, you've got to be able to handle it and not let it get too far off-balance. And like I said, the run right now, the way this team's hitting, and the pitchers are throwing the ball well, it's fun to be on a team like this when things are going well."

The wiry right-hander was nasty from the outset, retiring 11 of the first 12 hitters he faced. Ben Zobrist delivered the first hit of the game for the Rays, a single to right in the fourth.

The problem for the Red Sox was that Garza was matching Buchholz pitch-for-pitch.

There was finally a breakthrough, if only a slight one, in the bottom of the sixth. Pedroia belted a towering fly ball that came within a foot or two of clearing the Green Monster for a home run. Instead, it caromed off the top of the wall for a one-out double. The Red Sox had the right hitter coming up next, as red-hot Victor Martinez roped an RBI single to right-center. The clutch knock extended Martinez's hitting streak to 14 games.

The Rays responded to Boston's first run by scoring against Buchholz in the seventh. With runners at second and third and two outs, Jason Bartlett smacked one up the middle that looked primed to sneak through the infield.

Pedroia made a tremendous stop, but his hurried throw to first was wide of Casey Kotchman, allowing the tying run to score. Thanks to nice hustle by Kotchman and a strong block of the plate by Martinez, the Red Sox cut down Gabe Gross, who tried to score the go-ahead from second.

"He's one of the best in the game [at blocking the plate]," said Red Sox catching instructor Gary Tuck. "Overall blocking the plate, he's very good at it. His timing is good, he takes some chances, but he just let a runner slide straight into the plate and steered him right off."

Before Pedroia's homer, Hideki Okajima pitched a scoreless eighth to earn the win. It was a rebound performance by the lefty, who had been scored on in his previous four outings.

"I'm so glad I was able to help the team, because I was struggling a little bit. I couldn't help the team at all. Today, I was able to contribute to the team, so I'm very happy," Okajima said through interpreter Jeff Yamaguchi.

Jonathan Papelbon earned the save, as Pedroia's bomb stood up.

"I was just trying to hit a deep fly ball and get [Gathright] in," Pedroia said. "Joey is real fast. I wasn't trying to do too much. Usually when you try to not do anything, you end up doing something, so it worked out for us."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.