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February 25. 2013 11:37PM

It's prime time for Red Sox veteran Pedroia

FORT MYERS, Fla. - There's at least one change in Dustin Pedroia's life that makes the Red Sox second baseman absolutely sick: the impending move of his hometown Sacramento Kings to Seattle.

"Brutal!" he thundered, while teammate Shane Victorino gave him a hard time over calling the Kings "we," as in, "When we went 29-53 . . ."

The Kings are far from the only change in Pedroia's life, however, as he prepares to embark on his eighth big league season. On the personal front, he's now father to two young sons, 5-month-old Cole and 3-year-old Dylan. He's also preparing to say goodbye to his 20s, with his 30th birthday coming in August.

Professionally, Pedroia remains firmly in his prime, but the team around him has changed considerably since he arrived for good in 2007 and won the AL Rookie of the Year Award as well as a World Series title.

Gone are the veterans who once defined the Red Sox, guys like Mike Lowell, Manny Ramirez, and Curt Schilling, and more recently, Josh Beckett, Kevin Youkilis and Jason Varitek.

Now, Pedroia is that veteran, one of the few with the institutional memory of the last championship and the ALCS Game 7 that followed in 2008.

"You appreciate those first couple of years more," Pedroia said Sunday after working out at JetBlue Park. "I didn't necessarily enjoy them at the time the way I should have, because I didn't know how to. We want to get back to being that type of team again."

Of all the players on the roster, perhaps none is better positioned to lead them there than Pedroia. He's the perfect combination of youth and experience, and his best days are not yet behind him.

Save for two spats with ex-manager Bobby Valentine last year - Valentine had that effect on people - Pedroia has remained largely above the fray that typically accompanies playing in Boston, a fan favorite through thick and thin.

Oh, and let's not forget that he's one of the best players in baseball.

"I don't really change how I try to do my job," Pedroia said. "I show up, get my work done, lead by example, play hard. That's all you can do. If you worry about the other stuff, it just takes away from the way you perform. I'm trying to learn more about being better at blocking out the other stuff. Go play the game and lead on the field - that's a big part of what I want to be."

Pedroia felt he had little choice but to insert himself into the drama last year after Valentine criticized Youkilis for seeming unmotivated and detached, which led to Pedroia's infamous remarks that "that's not the way we do things here," followed by much gnashing of teeth over whether he had undermined his manager.

"I've never had to do that before," Pedroia said. "I felt like when your teammate has his back against the wall, it's my responsibility to be there for him. Everyone goes through tough times. If I'm struggling and David (Ortiz) sticks up for me, that would mean the world to me.

"I wasn't really trying to challenge our manager. I wasn't thinking of it like that. I wanted to make sure Youk knew we all had his back and he didn't have to worry that his teammates thought he wasn't giving 100 percent effort. That's what I wanted him to feel, and I hope he did."

Last year's poisoned cocktail of crushing defeats served with a squeeze of melodrama took its toll.

"Losing is awful," he said. "It's not fun at all."

All things considered, Pedroia produced respectable numbers, despite missing 20 games to a nagging thumb injury that required postseason surgery. He hit .290 with 15 homers and 65 RBIs, and was particularly good in the second half (.318-9-32-.880 OPS) amidst the implosion.

"That was a tough deal," he said of his thumb. "That took forever to heal. It's one of those things that needed rest, and you can't rest when you're hitting."

It's the grind of 162 games that takes its toll in baseball, and Pedroia was asked if he could envision altering his style to limit the wear and tear that comes with diving all over the field and playing at full throttle.

"I'm smart about it," he said. "The injuries I've had were freak deals. I fouled the ball off my foot. My hand slipped off the bat and I tore that muscle. I take care of myself in the offseason and work hard during the season lifting and getting treatment. I don't weigh a lot, so I don't take the same pounding like a guy that's 190 pounds.

"I know it might seem like I take a beating, but it's not as bad as it looks."

And with that, Pedroia was off, but not before demonstrating the old adage about how the more things change, the more they stay they same.

"I feel like I'm 18," he said. "I have a lot more baseball left in me. I'm probably going to get better when I'm older. I'll get stronger. I haven't even hit my growth spurt yet."


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