Goodbye to Youk

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Goodbye to Youk

On May 15, 2004 seven months after one of the lowest points in Red Sox history and five months before the undisputed apex Kevin Youkilis made his Major League debut. The Sox were playing the Blue Jays at the artist formerly known as SkyDome, and Youkilis batted eighth and played third base for the recently-DL'ed Bill Mueller.

Youk was a guy who Boston fans were already familiar with before his first taste of Major League life. We knew him as one of the strongest prospects in the Sox system. We knew him as one of the faces of the Moneyball phenomenon. We knew him for his nickname: The Greek God of Walks. And of course, we knew him from his Oscar-nominated cameo in 1994's Milk Money, starring Ed Harris and pre-collagen Melanie Griffith.

In the second inning, the 25-year-old Youkilis took the plate for his long-awaited first career at bat . . . and promptly popped up to shortstop. But he got another chance in the fourth, and this time, drove a 2-1 pitch over the left field wall for his first hit a home run. However, what happened afterwards was far more memorable than the blast itself.

Youkilis rounded the bases and jogged back to the dugout, surely looking to celebrate the realization of a lifelong dream. Instead, he found nothing. Teammates, coaches, bat boys everyone ignored him. It was the old school silent treatment, and Youkilis was the perfect target. With no other options, he walked down to the end of the bench, where he sat awkwardly for a few seconds, until the Sox eventually called off the gag and trickled down to congratulate their newest teammate. It was hilarious. A uniquely memorable start to a uniquely memorable Red Sox career. One that came to a predictable, but nonetheless emotional end yesterday afternoon at Fenway.

In retrospect, the funniest thing about Kevin Youkilis' original nickname the Greek God of Walks will always be that Youkilis isn't even Greek. However, the most ironic thing about the name is that what ultimately endeared Youk to fans here in Boston is that he was just about the furthest thing from a God.

Nomar. Pedro. Manny. Papi. Those were baseball Gods. Those were guys who when at their best lived and operated on such a different level from the rest of humanity that it was hard to even fathom. They were larger than life. They were our idols.

Youk was our buddy.

The fire. The anger. The attitude. The chip on his shoulder. The beard. The endless array of Irish driving caps. They say when two people are married long enough, they start looking, dressing and acting alike. Well, after nearly a decade in Boston, Kevin Youkilis born and raised in Cincinnati looked and acted like a dead ringer for any lifelong Bostonian. Where most athletes around here can't wait for the season to end so they can escape to their home bases in California, Arizona, Texas and the Dominican, Youk was based here. He loved Boston. He was Boston. He embraced the city as much as we embraced him.

And we loved him for everything he brought to the game: The versatility. The hustle. The defense. The brutal abuse of the Monster. The rings. The All-Star Games. The Gold Glove. For helping bridge the gap from 2004 to 2007. For giving everything he had every time he was out there. What made Kevin Youkilis so especially fun to root for was that feeling that you were rooting for a friend. That he was so real and accessible. That he was a guy who could have played on your high school team. Hell, a guy who could have played on your 30-and-over beer league softball team.

He wasn't blessed with speed, power or ridiculous athleticism. He surely wasn't blessed with a superior physique. He was just a grinder. A guy who gave everything he had because he didn't have the luxury of doing it any other way. Even in 2008 and 2009, when he was without question one of the best all-around players in the American League, it still felt like we were rooting for an underdog. Maybe because we'd seen him as that dumpy 25-year-old. That we knew how hard he'd worked to not only get to that level, but to stay there. Whatever it was, we never took his success for granted.

Sure, he wasn't perfect. He pissed people off: teammates, coaches, opponents. And over the last few years, as his body wore down, that fiery attitude that once endeared him to Boston became an issue behind the scenes. We still don't know exactly how bad it was, but it was it was there. As a result of that, and the emergence of Will Middlebrooks, it was time for him to go. We all know that. We've been saying it for months. But even if the time was right for Youk and the Sox to part ways, that doesn't make it any easier to say goodbye.

But yesterday, we did.

Yesterday, eight years and change after that home run at SkyDome, 33-year-old Kevin Youkilis took the plate for his long-awaited final at-bat in a Red Sox uniform.

With one on, and two out, he drove a 2-1 pitch into right center field, and all things considered, it should have been caught. By major league standards, it was a pretty routine play. But as it turns out, that's part of the beauty. Because by major league standards, very few batters run their hardest after hitting somewhat routine fly balls. In most cases, when you see a ball fall in front of a blinded outfielder like Youk's shot did yesterday, you're looking at a stand up double. At a guy who jogs lightly around first, and then kicks into gear once the ball hits the grounded. But in typical Youkilis fashion, he was on full blast from the second the ball hit the bat. By the time the ball hit the ground, he was chugging past second and on his way to third, where he eventually slid in (with all the grace that we've come to expect from Youk) for an unlikely triple.

This time, as he walked back to the dugout, there was nothing that resembled silence of that first home run in Toronto. This time, the whole team waited on the top step of the dugout. Instead of cold shoulders, they met him with hugs. With tears. As 35,000 fans said goodbye the only way they knew how. With an unbelievable standing ovation.

With a legendary round of applause for a legendary member of the Boston Red Sox.

He may not have been a God, but ultimately, that made everything he accomplished here all the more impressive. And all the more fun to root for.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Quotes, notes and stars: Red Sox 7, White Sox 3

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Quotes, notes and stars: Red Sox 7, White Sox 3

Quotes, notes and stars from the Red Sox' 7-3 win over the White Sox:

QUOTES

* "Where five days ago, he was able to harness things and command the baseball a little better, tonight that was not the case.'' - John Farrell on Henry Owens.

* "That was a momentum shift for us.'' - Farrell on the inning-ending double play that ended the fifth, with Mookie Betts throwing out Brett Lowrie at the plate.

* "They've done outstanding work, when our backs have been against the wall with some early exits by starters.'' Farrell on the bullpen contributions.

* "It's disappointing, (after) working hard on my mechanics the last five days.'' - Owens on his command struggles.

* "It's good to win a series, for sure, against this team.'' - Xander Bogaerts on the win.

NOTES

* Seven different Red Sox hitters produced an RBI.

* The Red Sox are 9-2 in their last 11 and 11-4 in their last 15.

* Hanley Ramirez, who homered for the second time in his last two games, has nine RBI in his last nine games.

* Jackie Bradley Jr. extended his hitting streak to 11 straight games.

* The Sox became the first team to beat the White Sox two games in a row at home.

STARS

1) Matt Barnes

Barnes picked up the win in relief, contributing five big outs in the middle innings and stabilizing the game for the Red Sox bullpen.

2) Dustin Pedroia

After going hitless Wednesday night in the cleanup spot, Pedroia was back in the No. 2 hole and got the Sox off on the right foot with a solo homer in the top of the first. He later added two more hits.

3) Hanley Ramirez

Returning from a one-game absence, Ramirez belted his second homer in as many games and also worked two walks, a good sign for someone who not long ago was too often expanding the strike zone.

First impressions: Red Sox bullpen picks up the slack in 7-3 win

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First impressions: Red Sox bullpen picks up the slack in 7-3 win

CHICAGO -- First impressions from the Red Sox' 7-3 win over the White Sox:

* Henry Owens doesn't throw enough strikes to remain in the rotation.

Owens's time was coming to an end anyway, what with the imminent return of Eduardo Rodriguez.

But Owens may have pitched his way out of another start with his outing Thursday night. He faced 16 hitters and walked six hitters.

In every inning he began, he allowed the leadoff hitter to reach. This, despite his teammates scoring runs for him in every previous half inning.

* For a team without a lot of homers, the Red Sox hit their share Thursday night.

The Sox came into the game tied for 11th in homers in the American League, then hit three in the first six innings.

Each one of the homers -- by Dustin Pedroia, Hanley Ramirez and Jackie Bradley - came with the bases empty, but together, they helped the Red Sox hold off the White Sox.

Ramirez's homer was particularly encouraging, since it was his second in the last three nights, and like the one he hit on Tuesday, was hit to the opposite field.

* The bullpen picked up a lot of slack.

When the Henry Owens Walkfest mercifully ended in the fourth inning, the Red Sox still had 18 outs to get.

Heath Hembree stumbled some, allowing a run on five hits -- the first run he's allowed this season -- but Matt Barnes, Junichi Tazawa, Robbie Ross. Jr took it from there, chipping in for the final 4 1/3 innings, all scoreless.

Thus far this season, the Red Sox have won four games in which their starter failed to get to the fifth inning. Some of that is a tribute to the offense, which has rallied a few times to make up early deficits.

But it's also due in part to the bullpen, which has provided quality relief and bought time for the offense to catch up.

* The Sox continue to play well on the road.

Through the first four road series, the Red Sox are 4-0-1, having done no worse than a split in their road sets to date.

Learning to win on the road now can be a useful trait for this team in the second half, when the schedule has them playing far more games away from home in the final two and a half months of the season.

* Boston had a balanced offensive attack.

Every member of the starting lineup except one Thursday had either an extra-base hit or a sacrifice fly. Leadoff hitter Mookie Betts, who continues to run hot and cold, was the only starter without one or the other, though he did have a single, walk twice and score a run.

In all, seven different players recorded one RBI.