BOSTON -- Without question, the smile that crept onto Dustin Pedroia's face as he rounded first base and saw his grand slam clear the left field wall had a lot to do with the circumstances of that moment Friday night.
His Red Sox had been struggling to take advantage of scoring opportunities, as they have all season, and thus allowed the Athletics to hang around. But with his base clearer the Boston lead ballooned from one to five. It was a big moment in what became a six-run win. Certainly worth smiling about.
Especially because it might've been an even bigger moment for Pedroia himself than for his team.
Since the start of last season, Pedroia has played roughly three games at full strength. On the opening day of 2013 he tore a ligament in his thumb that required surgery after the season, then during the 2014 home opener he was upended near second base and hurt his wrist.
He soldiered on through both, missing just two games last year and one so far this season, but the ailments so sapped his power at the plate that prior to Friday's blast he'd homered just once in his last 441 plate appearances. Before hurting his thumb, Pedroia had averaged a homer every 42 trips in his major-league career. Clearly something was missing from the small second baseman's typically big swing.
So that's why Friday was particularly encouraging. It barely cleared the wall, hitting off the ledge atop the Green Monster before bounding into the first row of seats. And it was just a few feet higher than a couple of other balls Pedroia has hit recently. But the swing itself was there. It was strong. It was aggressive. It was vintage.
"I'm feeling good," Pedroia said. "I'm still trying to make adjustments every day, trying to get better. I'm pretty excited to hit a home run - it's been a while. I had to make a lot of adjustments with my thumb deal, so I'm still trying to get back to swinging hard like I normally do."
But on an 0-2 slider, with the game in the balance, he let loose. He was merely trying to drive the ball and get at least one man home, and didn't hit it perfectly, but he wound up plating all four on career homer No. 100, which came delivered by a hack reminiscent of many that resulted in the 99 before it."Part of it is my follow through," Pedroia explained. "I went and watched the video of the home run and it was my normal follow through, so that's when I can generate my bat speed and backspin on the ball. It's coming."
Pedroia said he didn't fall into bad habits while compensating for his injuries, but in "trying to find a way to compete every day," he got away from what he normally does by making adjustments. Add in the rehab process that followed offseason surgery, and it has taken some time. He has found a way to stay productive throughout, batting .301 to finish seventh in MVP voting last year, and entering Saturday on a pace for 54 doubles this season. But Friday night, almost three weeks removed from a cortisone shot to help the pain in wrist, Pedroia finally appeared to have his full arsenal again.
"You try to find ways to get back and remember what type of player you are. You let the ball travel. When the ball travels and it comes to me, that's when I'm strong. I'm trying to get back to that."
And when he does, in full, the Red Sox will have another reason to smile.
- - - - - -
Pedroia wasn't the only Red Sox whose Friday performance offered an encouraging indication that he is getting back to full strength after dealing with injuries late last season. Starting pitcher Clay Buchholz yielded only a run over 6.1 innings, giving him consecutive quality starters in the wake of a poor Patriots Day performance that prompted an admission that he'd yet to fully develop his arm strength.
"It's been a process between last start and this start, and as far as arm strength and everything it seems to be coming along pretty well," Buchholz said. "I think that was the last phase that I was going through, was getting arm strength back, and trusting the pitches that I end up throwing."
Given the way John Lackey and Jake Peavy have thrown recently, adding an effective Buchholz to those two and Saturday starter Jon Lester could be what helps the Red Sox get rolling after a middling month-plus.
- - - - -
Before shifting over to right on Saturday, Jackie Bradley Jr. had started 22 of the Sox' previous 23 games in center field, which is a testament to the terrific defense he has provided at that position - rarely more evident than when he started a double play with a dandy of a leaping grab Friday night. But according to Farrell, Bradley's glove work has given him more than just an everyday opportunity.
"His defense has given him confidence at this level," the manager said, and with that boost Bradley's overall game appears to have taken a step forward, particularly at the plate. In the last seven games leading into Saturday he had five doubles and was reaching base at a .407 clip, as he began to do more with the pitches he can handle while continuing to exhibit an excellence knowledge of the strike zone.
"I'm getting comfortable," Bradley said. "I'm learning pitchers. I'm working. I'm trying to get better."
And as he progresses, Sox fans have started to see why the organization is so high on his future. After looking overmatched at times last season he is regularly putting together professional at-bats, he is contributing at the bottom of the lineup, and he is earning his chances. Then he's taking advantage of them.
"For them to have the confidence in me to at least attempt to get the job done," Bradley said, "it gives me a lot of confidence."
- - - - -
STAT OF THE WEEK: Entering Friday, four big-league rookies with at least 50 plate appearances this season had swung at less than 23 percent of the pitches thrown to them outside of the strike zone. Boston's Xander Bogaerts (19.5 percent) and Bradley (22.1 percent) were first and fourth, respectively, while former Fisher Cat Travis D'Arnaud, now a Met, was third (21.7 percent).
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.