Dustin Pedroia ready for come­back

Red Sox 2B be­set by knee surg­eries last 2 years

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS -

CHAN­DLER, Ariz. — Red Sox sec­ond base­man Dustin Pedroia, sit­ting on the weight bench in the gym of his pala­tial home, is rest­less, rub­bing his hands to­gether, chug­ging an­other bot­tled wa­ter, keep­ing an eye on the lat­est base­ball news on his big-screen TV.

He has played three base­ball games in the last 500 days en­ter­ing this week, hav­ing more knee surg­eries than games played the last two years, but was ea­gerly look­ing for­ward to an­other White House visit to cel­e­brate Bos­ton’s lat­est World Se­ries cham­pi­onship. Only for that trip to be post­poned be­cause of the gov­ern­ment shut­down.

So, once again he im­pro­vises and now has a flight Fri­day from Sky Har­bor In­ter­na­tional Air­port, ar­riv­ing in Fort My­ers, Florida, where every move he makes dur­ing the Red Sox’s spring train­ing camp will be metic­u­lously mon­i­tored and eval­u­ated.

There won’t be a day that goes by when some­one won’t ask him four sim­ple words: “How are you feel­ing?”

When that time stops, only then will Pedroia know that he has con­vinced ev­ery­one he’s truly back from his fourth knee surgery in the last 28 months, in­clud­ing the com­pli­cated and ex­ten­sive mi­crofrac­ture surgery on his left knee in October 2017 which in­cluded car­ti­lage restora­tion.

“If I come back and play the en­tire year,” Pedroia tells USA TO­DAY, “it will be proud­est I’ve been of any­thing I’ve ever done in base­ball. My team­mates have seen what I’ve been through. They saw me hav­ing to fly to Vail (Colorado) dur­ing the World Se­ries just to see an­other doc­tor. They saw all my ups and downs. There were a lot of tough times.”

It was the first sum­mer that Pedroia, the 2008 Amer­i­can League MVP and three-time World Se­ries cham­pion, has been away from base­ball. He got to hang with his wife, Kelli, and their three young sons, tak­ing them to soc­cer prac­tice, while watch­ing Red Sox games on his cell­phone. He also got to ex­pe­ri­ence what a 115-de­gree sum­mer day feels like in Phoenix.

Now, at 35, the Red Sox’s old­est-tenured player, and con­sid­ered one of the great­est sec­ond base­men in fran­chise his­tory, Pedroia vows to prove ev­ery­one wrong.

Again.

“This is one of base­ball’s great­est sto­ries, man,” says Mil­wau­kee Brew­ers bench coach Pat Mur­phy, who has known Pedroia since he was 17 and was his col­le­giate coach at Ari­zona State. “This is a guy who set the stan­dard of how the Bos­ton Red Sox play. He’s a throw­back. He’s like a mod­ern-day Pete Rose.

“I don’t think it’s even an op­tion for him that he’s com­ing. He’s com­ing back. And he’s go­ing to im­pact the game at its high­est level. Every kid in Amer­ica should be watch­ing his story, be­cause

it’s as pure and gen­uine as any­thing you’ll see.”

Pedroia re­al­izes there’s no guar­an­tee he’ll re­turn to be­ing the same player who was a four-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove win­ner. He has had four left knee surg­eries since October 2016 and never re­cov­ered af­ter suf­fer­ing car­ti­lage dam­age in his left tibia and fe­mur on April 21, 2017, when for­mer Ori­oles third base­man Manny Machado’s slide spiked the side of his sur­gi­cally re­paired knee.

“It’s un­for­tu­nate it hap­pened, but it’s base­ball man,” says Pedroia, who in­sists he doesn’t carry a grudge. “You play sec­ond base, that’s my job. It could have hap­pened to any­body.”

He still played 105 games in 2017 and had ex­ten­sive knee surgery af­ter pick­ing the doc­tor who promised his quick­est re­turn, only to last just three games last sea­son.

“He felt so bad,” man­ager Alex Cora said. “He kept say­ing, ‘I have to be here. I have to be play­ing. It’s on me if we don’t win the World Se­ries.’ He takes ev­ery­thing so per­sonal. It was like he was ready to blame him­self.”

Pedroia re­al­ized in Au­gust he couldn’t make it back af­ter months of re­hab and an­other surgery, but it didn’t stop him from sit­ting in on every ad­vance scout­ing meet­ing be­fore each se­ries, pro­vid­ing daily in­put in every ses­sion with the coach­ing staff, and be­ing ev­ery­thing from a coach to a psy­chol­o­gist to a guid­ance coun­selor dur­ing the Red Sox’s play­off run.

“He was in the mid­dle of ev­ery­thing,” Cora said. “I re­mem­ber one day in Septem­ber we were in New York, I came in early, and some­body’s al­ready in the bat­ting cage. It’s Mitch (More­land), and Pedey is talk­ing about his ap­proach and me­chan­ics. I didn’t say a word. I just sat there and watched.

“Even though he wasn’t able to con­trib­ute on the field, he was do­ing ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble be­hind closed doors.”

Says Pedroia: “I was pretty down at times dur­ing the year, re­ally down, but guys like Brock (Holt) and Rick (Por­cello) kept pick­ing me up when I needed it

the most. It re­ally made it eas­ier when we traded for Ian Kinsler. It took a lot of pres­sure off to get back.

“Now, if we hadn’t won the World Se­ries, it would have just crushed me. I didn’t want to live think­ing about what if I could have done just one thing dif­fer­ently to help us win. That would have been mis­er­able.”

He has spent the win­ter mak­ing sure it doesn’t hap­pen again. He has stayed at home the en­tire time. Five days a week, four hours a day, he has been in his home gym, in­creas­ing his flex­i­bil­ity, los­ing seven pounds to ease stress on his knee, and tak­ing thou­sands of rounds of bat­ting prac­tice. The high­light was Jan. 14 when he be­gan run­ning for the first time in his back­yard. He was so ec­static that he blasted the video to vir­tu­ally every con­tact on his cell­phone.

“He keeps send­ing me all of these texts and videos,” Cora says. “I fi­nally said, ‘Pedey, I don’t want to see any more videos. No videos!’ I want him to be pa­tient.

“But you know Pedey, he’s ready to shock the world.”

Pedroia, de­spite the con­fi­dence and brag­gado­cio that has de­fined his ca­reer, is well aware of the odds. He knew he should have never at­tempted to re­turn so quickly. If he had to do it over, he says, he never would have had the in­ten­sive surgery in the first place and sim­ply rested. For the first time, he’s lis­ten­ing to his body.

“To have part of a dead body and plug it into mine,” Pedroia says, “and then tell me in six months I’m sup­posed to play against the best base­ball play­ers in the world, it was un­re­al­is­tic. At some point, you’ve got to let your body heal.

“Right now, I’m re­ally con­fi­dent, but you can only sim­u­late so much, you know. The last step left is to go out and play. If I play one game and I’m fine, and then play two games in a row with­out pain, then I’ll be who I’ve been. I’m try­ing to over­come a lot and prove peo­ple wrong at the same time.”

Pedroia, who has his World Se­ries rings dis­played in his bed­room, his 2008 AL MVP and 2007 AL Rookie of the Year plaques in his gym, and the World Se­ries cham­pi­onship sea­son years painted on the wall above his bat­ting cage, still has one award he has never achieved.

Re­ally, he never wanted it un­til now: the Come­back Player of the Year award.

“What’s cool is that my kids have seen what I’ve gone through the last year and a half,” Pedroia says. “I’m al­ways telling that when stuff isn’t go­ing well, you just got to push through and find a way to turn it around. So I’ve got to prac­tice what I preach.

“I can’t wait to go out there and play, have them see me play, know­ing what I’ve been say­ing all along is right.”

The Red Sox aren’t sure what to ex­pect but showed their con­fi­dence in Pedroia by not pur­su­ing an­other sec­ond base­man. They let Kinsler, ac­quired at last year’s trade dead­line, leave for the Padres with­out an of­fer. The plan is for Pedroia to be their ev­ery­day sec­ond base­man, only this time pro­vid­ing more rest with in­field­ers Holt, Ed­uardo Nunez and Tzu-Wei Lin on the ros­ter.

“We don’t ex­pect him to be the 162game player any­more,” gen­eral man­ager Dave Dom­browski says, “but if he can be a 120- to 135-game player, we will be thrilled. We would be ab­so­lutely thrilled.

“If any­body can do it, it’s Pedey. He’s so ded­i­cated, con­scious and driven. He’s our Mr. Red Sox. He de­serves the op­por­tu­nity, and we think he’ll do it. The doc­tors think he’ll do it. But we re­ally don’t know un­less he does it day in and day out.”

Pedroia, who has played at least 154 games five times and started 51 con­sec­u­tive post­sea­son games un­til last year, has been a fix­ture in the Red Sox’s lineup since 2006. Yet he has now been on the DL as many times in the last two years as he had been dur­ing his en­tire ca­reer. There are ques­tions whether the Red Sox can count on him play­ing for the du­ra­tion of his con­tract, which has $40 mil­lion re­main­ing through 2021.

Pedroia, 36 in Au­gust, in­sists he hasn’t be­gun think­ing of the end. He re­fuses to even ut­ter the word say­ing, “How can you re­tire when I’m not work­ing. I’m just play­ing a game I love.”

The way he views it, he has proved ev­ery­one wrong his whole life, so why stop now?

When Pedroia tried to re­turn last sum­mer, and his doc­tor tried to en­cour­age him, say­ing it might be pos­si­ble he could hit .293 again as he did in 2017, Pedroia scolded him.

“‘Doc, I can .293 on one leg right now,’ ” Pedroia told him. “‘Give me two knees, I’ll hit .393 and make you worl­drenowned.’

“I said to him, ‘Hy­po­thet­i­cally, what if some­one tore the ul­nar nerve in their thumb com­pletely off the bone on open­ing day (2013). Is it pos­si­ble to play 176 base­ball games in a sea­son, swing a bat every day and catch every ball?’ He says, ‘No, that’s not pos­si­ble at all.’

“I told him, ‘Well, I did it! So don’t tell me I can’t do this!’ ”

So go ahead and doubt Pedroia. He dares you. Just brace your­self for the con­se­quences.

“You watch,” Mur­phy says, “he’ll be out there, im­pact­ing the game at its high­est level like he’s al­ways done. He’s Dustin Pedroia. He’s not close to be­ing done. This will be just an­other chap­ter of his legacy.”

DAVID BUT­LER II/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Dustin Pedroia hopes his re­turn to play speaks vol­ume for the Red Sox af­ter knee in­juries and op­er­a­tions lim­ited his play.

Bob Night­en­gale Colum­nist USA TO­DAY

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