Commentary

With no DH, Youkilis sitting as Ortiz takes first base

Originally Published: October 26, 2007
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

DENVER -- Kevin Youkilis made it clear Friday that a little pine time in the Rocky Mountains isn't going to crush his spirit. A prominent Boston hitter must take a seat in Denver, and Youkilis never expected it to be Mike Lowell, with his 120-RBI bat and slick defense, or David Ortiz, owner of three Silver Slugger awards.

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But with the Red Sox leading the Rockies 2-0 in the World Series, the intrigue had to come from somewhere, didn't it? Before Boston manager Terry Francona took the podium and outlined his plans for the Colorado leg of the Series, Youkilis fielded question after question about how it might feel to be a spectator in Game 3 Saturday night at Coors Field.

"It's really not a big deal, to tell you the truth," he said. "We have wars going on over in the Middle East, and people are wondering if Kevin Youkilis is going to play first base?"

Not anymore, they aren't. After several days of speculation over how the Boston lineup configuration might change with the loss of the designated hitter in Denver, Francona dispensed with any semblance of doubt Friday.

Lowell will play third base for Boston in Game 3, and Ortiz will start across the diamond at first. If the Red Sox take a lead into the late innings, Francona will lift Ortiz for Youkilis and his trusty glove. Youkilis handled 1,080 chances without an error during the regular season, and was the only regular first baseman in the majors to finish with a 1.000 fielding percentage.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ortiz
AP Photo/David PhillipDavid Ortiz, practicing at first base during Friday's workout, has only played 27 games there over the last three years.

"We sat down and tried to talk through it logically, and I guess we felt like this was the best thing to do," Francona said. "I think David is a really good hitter, and I think Mike Lowell is a really good hitter, and I actually think Youk is a really good hitter, but they won't let us play all three of them."

The inconsistency of the designated hitter rule cuts both ways in the World Series. Few National League clubs can afford to carry a defensively impaired slugger all year, so the use of the DH rule in American League parks can lead to some surprising names on the lineup card in October.

Consider the list of National Leaguers who've started at DH in the World Series this decade: Erubiel Durazo, Shawon Dunston, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Jeff Conine, Marlon Anderson, Reggie Sanders, a washed-up Jeff Bagwell, Scott Spiezio, Chris Duncan and Ryan Spilborghs.

Conversely, American League teams are frequently forced to scramble when the DH slot disappears in National League parks. The choice comes down to this for a manager: Stick with your regular lineup and sacrifice your DH. Or play the DH and run the risk that his defensive inadequacies might cost you in a tight game.

"It's just the way teams are built," Lowell said. "Coming out of spring training, American League teams don't mind carrying two first basemen because they know they can DH one. Don't you think the Phillies would love to have Jim Thome and Ryan Howard? But you can't do it in the National League.

"It is what it is. We know when we go to National League parks that there's no DH, and vice versa. I don't really know who it helps out. I guess we can evaluate it year to year."

Ortiz, 31, wasn't always regarded as a substandard defender. In 1996, while playing for Seattle's Class A Wisconsin farm club, he was named the top defensive first baseman in the Midwest League. But his time in the field has steadily declined, to the point that he's made only 27 starts at first base for Boston since 2005.

[+] EnlargeKevin Youkilis
AP Photo/David PhillipKevin Youkilis was the only everyday first baseman in baseball to finish with a 1.000 fielding percentage in 2007.

The book on Ortiz's defense: decent hands, lacking in range, but an upgrade over, say, Jason Giambi. It remains to be seen how deftly Ortiz will pick balls out of the dirt, charge bunts or make the 3-6 forceout against the Rockies while shaking off all that rust.

"Anything around me, I'll catch," Ortiz said. "After that, I don't know."

Ortiz's health is an additional concern. He has torn cartilage in his right knee, and if it swells up Saturday night at Coors Field, Francona might be forced to change course and go with Youkilis at first base. But all signs are go for Big Papi at the moment.

"I have a little swelling," Ortiz said, "but I've got no pain right now."

There was some speculation that Francona might give Youkilis a whirl at third base, but Lowell's all-around game makes him a tough man to sit. Lowell won a Gold Glove award with Florida in 2005, and his .976 fielding percentage is the best ever for a third baseman with at least 1,000 career games.

The need for solid defense at third is magnified against Colorado, given the Rockies' abundance of speed at the top of the order with Willy Taveras and Kaz Matsui. Taveras led the majors with 37 bunt singles and 54 infield hits this season even though he appeared in only 97 games because of a variety of injuries.

Francona's decision to sit Youkilis will also require some tinkering at the top of Boston's batting order. Barring a change of heart, Francona plans to use rookie center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury at leadoff and move Dustin Pedroia to the No. 2 spot, where Youkilis usually bats.

"I reserve the right to change [my mind] tonight over dinner, but that's probably what we'll do," Francona said.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer

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