J.D. Drew and Phil Mickelson have one thing in common these days: They could both benefit from having a driver at their disposal.
Drew, the pride of Hahira, Ga., is still befuddled by the streets of Boston, more than a year after his arrival in the city. When the potholes and gridlock aren't taxing his patience, the convoluted layouts are testing his sense of direction.
"It's one of the most difficult places I've ever driven in my life,'' Drew said. "There's no road that actually runs north and south. You'll be going north one minute and west the next. That's one crazy road system they've got there.''
As long as Drew can find his way to Kenmore Square and into the players' parking lot at Fenway, you get a sense he'll figure it out. He sure doesn't need a chauffeur to help him circle the bases.
It remains to be seen if Drew will prove worthy of Boston's five-year, $70 million investment over the long haul, and if Red Sox fans will come to regard him as a favorite son or simply enjoy the show and withhold judgment while waiting for his next quad pull.
Either way, the present is a wonderful thing to behold.
Drew is so scorching this month, even his agent, Scott Boras, might have trouble finding superlatives to describe his performance. Entering Saturday's game against St. Louis at Fenway Park, Drew is leading the majors in June in hitting (.435), home runs (nine), RBIs (21) and OPS (1.598). He has passed garden-variety hot and is now bordering on Lance Berkman-esque.
The only thing more impressive than Drew's numbers is his timing. David Ortiz, Boston's DH and resident lineup anchor, went down May 31 with a torn tendon sheath in his wrist. Drew homered and drove in three runs in a 9-4 victory over Baltimore the next day, and the Red Sox proceeded to win 11 of their next 16. After averaging 5.05 runs per game in April and May, Boston is up slightly, to 5.39 this month sans Big Papi.
While Drew has benefited from greater familiarity with American League pitching staffs in his second tour of the league, hitting coach Dave Magadan also credits a new, more user-friendly approach. The spray charts don't necessarily reflect it, but Magadan said Drew became too pull-conscious last year and failed to take advantage of the Fenway Park Green Monster, which should provide an inviting target when he's in sync.
Because of overanxiousness, Drew also lunged at too many pitches and became vulnerable to changeups and off-speed assortments. Too often, on the way to a .270-11-64 season in 2007, he was a 4-3 groundout waiting to happen.
That's no longer the case.
Boston Red Sox
"Over the last three weeks, he's allowed the ball to come to him, and he's driving it to center field and left-center,'' Magadan said. "He's opened up the other half of the field for himself, and when he's doing that, he's dangerous.''
The notoriously finicky Drew will never expand his zone, but that doesn't mean he's going to let fat pitches pass just because they come early in the count. He's 11-for-25 with four home runs and a 1.000 slugging percentage when he puts the first pitch in play this season. And he's hitting .636 in June when he's ahead in the count.
Of course, some improvements can't be traced to film study and extra batting practice. Sometimes it's just a matter of putting a personal trauma further back in the rearview mirror.
Drew's religious faith and metronomic personality help him go with the flow when he's being bashed on the talk shows or trashed by newspaper columnists. But by all accounts, he had difficulty focusing on baseball last year when the turmoil hit closer to home.
Drew's son Jack, then 1, fell and broke his collarbone and was later diagnosed with a developmental hip disorder that required him to spend six weeks in a body cast. Drew was thankful to be playing in a city with so many wonderful options for medical care, but that comfort didn't prevent his mind from wandering when he stepped in the box.
"What he went through was very painful for his child,'' Magadan said. "As a parent, you'd rather have it be happening to yourself, and it was weighing on him. He's not a guy who wears his heart on his sleeve, but you could still see he was preoccupied.''
Now Jack is fine, and while there might be another surgical procedure in his future, the long-term prognosis is excellent.
"He's such a sweet, easygoing kid,'' Drew said. "It's a nice change of pace to go home and know somebody is going to love you the same whether you're going good or bad.''
The same outward wall that prevents Drew from engaging in public displays of emotion makes him a challenge for fans to embrace. Red Sox loyalists have warmed to Kevin Youkilis because he's hyperintense and to Dustin Pedroia because he's undersized and "gritty.'' Drew, in contrast, glides to balls in right field, runs the bases with foresight and efficiency, and makes you wonder if there's an internal combustion engine beneath that placid veneer.
Sometimes [Drew] can make the game look easy. But just because you don't fire your helmet and break it doesn't mean you don't care. We understand that.
--Red Sox manager Terry Francona
"Sometimes he can make the game look easy,'' said Boston manager Terry Francona. "But just because you don't fire your helmet and break it doesn't mean you don't care. We understand that.''
Through Drew's long association with Boras, his early hardball dealings with Philadelphia and his decision to opt out of his contract with the Dodgers in 2006, he'll have to live with a reputation as a sort of bloodless mercenary. More than a decade after his draft holdout with the Phillies, Drew returned to a hostile reaction at Citizens Bank Park this week. Even he wondered if half the people in the stands understood precisely why they were booing.
Boston third baseman Mike Lowell heard the verbal abuse and testified to its vehemence. Lowell said Phillies fans joked about having Drew sign their batteries -- presumably after they threw them at him.
"People were saying, 'I don't care if you've got four hits, J.D. You still suck,''' Lowell said. "It got a lot worse than that -- trust me.''
Drew helped turn down the heat in Boston last October with a memorable grand slam off Cleveland's Fausto Carmona in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series. That clutch hit helped ensure the fans in right field at Fenway would be greeting him a bit more favorably moving forward.
"You could see the look on his face when he did so well in the postseason,'' Magadan said. "It was like this piano was off his back.''
Or as Drew so neatly summarized: "I had some ups and downs, but I had a strong finish and we ended up winning a World Series. So it all worked out great.''
Drew's been so good this year, the 7 percent of respondents who named him "Baseball's Most Overrated Player'' in a recent Sports Illustrated poll might ask for a re-vote. Slowly but surely, he's even starting to amend his reputation for fragility. Although Drew has been out of the starting lineup with a sore back, bruised knee, hyperextended wrist, strained quadriceps and a bout of vertigo this season, he has still managed to appear in 63 of Boston's first 76 games.
As Drew continues to produce and grow more comfortable in his environs, Francona notes that his real personality is starting to emerge. When his fellow Red Sox give him the needle, Drew seems more inclined to give it back these days. The other day in Philadelphia, Boston players sat in the dugout and took turns imitating Kevin Garnett's "Top of the World!'' celebration following the Celtics' NBA championship clincher. And there was J.D. Drew, sitting near the bat rack and joining in the fun.
Could Drew be laughing all the way to the All-Star Game in New York? As Garnett might say, anything is possible. If Drew keeps hitting like this, people might start thinking that J.D. stands for "Just Driven.''