Monday, July 6, 2009

Bailey, Bates encountering opposite emotions

Daniel Bard and Aaron Bates put aside their differences long ago.

Bard first encountered the newest Red Sox first baseman from opposite ends of Tobacco Road: Bard was pitching for North Carolina, and Bates was hitting home runs for N.C. State. In the two games in which the two faced each other, Bates went 1-for-6 with a walk and a strikeout -- and while Bates' Wolfpack won the first game by an 8-7 score, Bard threw a complete-game shutout en route to a 4-0 win for the Tar Heels.

"He didn't like hitting sinkers or sliders, so that's all I ever threw him," Bard said with a grin.

That scouting report may or may not be applicable these days. Bates overhauled the mechanics of his swing this winter, ditching his high leg kick and toe-tap in favor of a swing that doesn't leave him so vulnerable to pitches on the inside half of the plate.

The result: A year after Bates hit 11 home runs and slugged .420 in a full season with Double-A Portland, he hit nine home runs in barely 200 at-bats and slugged .505 to earn a promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket.

"The guy can hit," Bard said. "He's put up numbers everywhere he's gone. Going back to Double-A this year was frustrating in a way for him, but it was good because it motivated him to prove to a lot of people that he's better than that. He's apparently had an unbelievable year so far, and it's well-deserved."

But he still had just 24 Triple-A games under his belt as of late Sunday night. When the Red Sox summoned him to the major leagues to replace the injured Jeff Bailey, the call came totally out of the blue.

"I didn't know Bailey got hurt," Bates said, "so, originally, I was like, 'For what? What do you mean? Who am I going to go for?'"

Bates jumped a plane this morning, pausing only to call his mother -- who lives in Amherst, Mass. -- as well as his sister, who will begin her senior year at N.C. State this fall, and his brother. But when he found out he'd be in the starting lineup, playing first base and hitting ninth, he made a few more phone calls. N.C. State Elliott Avent was among the 15 or so friends and family in attendance when Bates made his big-league debut.

It all happened quickly. The Red Sox didn't even have a nameplate made out for Bates' locker. But that didn't mean the rookie wasn't going to make the most of what likely will be a brief big-league stint.

"As long as you're playing hard and having fun and playing the game the right way, the rest of the stuff falls into place," he said.


In front of the locker next to Bates' sat Jeff Bailey, a splint on his left ankle and the USA Today crossword puzzle in his left hand.

"Who's 'A Marx brother born Leonard?'" he asked the reporters clustered around him.

"Leonard Marx," one smart aleck piped up.

"Zeppo," another suggested. "Harpo. Groucho."

"It was probably Harpo," one said.

"Probably not Karl, huh?" still another said.

(No one stumbled upon the correct answer -- Chico.)

Bailey will have plenty of time to work on his crossword puzzles now that he's spending the next 15 days on the disabled list. The first baseman suffered a high ankle sprain in the seventh inning of Saturday's loss to Seattle -- Ronny Cedeno stepped on his foot trying to beat out a double-play ball. He underwent an MRI exam on Monday morning to get a sense for how long his injury would take to heal.

He was optimistic about his progress -- he said he felt far better on Monday than he had on Sunday, and he even was putting a little weight on the ankle. But he'll miss the run of lefthanders the Oakland Athletics are throwing at the Red Sox this week, the same hitters he was brought to Boston to face.

For a guy for whom every big-league at-bat counts, the injury came at a particularly unfortunate time.

"It's only going to be a couple of weeks, but it's frustrating," he said. "They've got two lefthanders starting against us. Maybe three. That was going to be some playing time right there, and it stinks when you don't get to do what you're here to do."

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