- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- He's been loud. He's been comical. He's been supportive.
The one thing Dustin Pedroia hasn't been for the Boston Red Sox since June 25 is able to play baseball. That will change Tuesday when the All-Star second baseman returns to the lineup after missing nearly two months with a fractured left foot.
His return is desperately needed as the Red Sox try to remain in contention in the American League East and the wild-card race. His teammates are anticipating major contributions from Pedroia in every aspect of the game.
After posting a 5-5 record on its recent road trip, Boston begins a nine-game homestand Tuesday against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. This is a critical stretch at Fenway Park, and with Pedroia back, the Sox need to make a dent in the standings. Currently, the Red Sox trail the first-place Yankees by six games and the wild card-leading Rays by five games. After this nine-game homestand, the Red Sox visit Tampa Bay, so there's no doubt this is a make-or-break stretch of the season.
Pedroia accomplished everything possible during his rehab in order to be game ready once he received clearance to play. He spent the weekend at Triple-A Pawtucket and played two games for the PawSox.
"The Red Sox need me more than the PawSox," he quipped recently.
Boston has dealt with myriad injuries to key players, including Josh Beckett, Victor Martinez, Kevin Youkilis, Clay Buchholz, Jason Varitek, Jacoby Ellsbury and Daisuke Matsuzaka. With the exception of Youkilis (out for the season with a thumb injury) and Varitek (could possibly be activated in two weeks), all the previously injured Sox players have returned to the lineup and contributed (though Ellsbury is now back on the DL).
Pedroia's impact will be greater.
"It's obviously big," said Red Sox ace Jon Lester. "He's the spark plug of our team. It'll be nice to get his energy back. It'll be nice to have him back. He's one of the leaders of this team, so anytime you get a guy like that back it'll help you in the type of situation we're in. We've got to play some good baseball, high-energy baseball, and he's good at that."
Red Sox manager Terry Francona said it doesn't know what kind of effect Pedroia's presence will bring.
"Everybody asks me that. How do you know?" Francona said. "You can't say it before it happens. You never know. If he goes 0-for-40, not much. The idea is that he's a great player, so we're thrilled, but you don't know how it affects the games because the games aren't played yet."
You don't know how Pedroia will affect the outcome of games? It's a safe bet it'll be a positive impact, Tito. When Pedroia fouled a pitch off his foot in San Francisco, the Red Sox were 44-31, three games out of the top spot in the AL East and tied for the wild-card lead. Without him, Boston posted a 23-21 record, ending up six games out of first and five games back in the wild-card race.
While the manager danced around the question, there's probably no one who misses Pedroia more than Francona. Teammate Mike Lowell, who has spent the majority of the season on the bench but has been thrust into the lineup due to the absence of Youkilis at first base, realizes how important Pedroia's return is.
"We're getting one of the elite second basemen in the league back," Lowell said. "He's a guy who brings a lot of energy to our team and he makes a lot of other guys better. He rounds out the team and I'm expecting him to be pretty excited. I'm expecting the fans to be pretty excited to see him, too."
During his time on the DL, Pedroia remained with the club on a daily basis and was louder than ever. Most players want to stay away from the team's daily routine while they are on the shelf so they're not in the way, but he made it a point to stay active and showed more than ever the kind of leader he is.
"I know it was tough for him mentally because he's used to playing every day, but some guys can just sulk and take it to the house," Lowell said. "He was there every inning [in the dugout] and very involved in the successes over the course of the season we've been going through. That just shows that he's a true teammate."
It's been noticeable for the pitching staff that the MVP second baseman hasn't been at his post, sucking up ground ball after ground ball like a Hoover, because they haven't heard any "encouraging" taunts from the right side of the infield from any of Pedroia's replacements.
"He's one of the anchors on this team," Buchholz said. "He's able to go out there and make things happen that normal players can't do. He's a spark plug for the offense and defense. He's a key component of this team and once he gets back and gets his feel back, I think he's definitely going to be fun to watch."
"There's not really any words to describe him," Buchholz added. "He gives 150 percent every at-bat. There's never a lackadaisical moment on his part."
Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, who has been swinging a hot bat of late, will finally have a chance again to drive Pedroia home on the base paths.
"Pedey is a big part of this team, man," Ortiz said. "When we get Pedey back, he brings that positive energy, plus you add his game, it's a perfect fit."
During Pedroia's forced hiatus, utility man Bill Hall has played the majority of games at second base. He's no Pedroia, but he filled in admirably. He's played in 39 games since Pedroia's injury, hitting .262 with 10 homers and 21 RBIs.
"I take pride in whatever position I'm playing," he said. "I was given an opportunity to go out and help this team win some ballgames. I felt like I've done pretty good for a stretch. I know Dustin's coming back. He's definitely going to be at second base on Tuesday. It was fun. I'm glad I got an opportunity to play and prove what I can do. I've always been a team player, so I'm just looking to fill in wherever I'm needed."
Many players over the years have suffered injuries, missed a significant amount of time and finally returned to the Red Sox lineup. None have been as important as Pedroia given the circumstances and timing of his return.
"Pedroia's actions and play speak for themselves," Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon said. "He'll definitely be a catalyst for our team and definitely be a boost in our lineup and hopefully he can come back and start playing the game like he hadn't even been out."
Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and Bruins for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Return of Dustin Pedroia will provide a spark when the Sox need it most.