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White Sox 3rd baseman has something to prove

Youkilis in lineup right away as he tries to regain form from successful years with Red Sox

Phil Rogers

On Baseball

9:46 PM CDT, June 25, 2012

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MINNEAPOLIS — You couldn't have blamed Kevin Youkilis if he wanted a little time to collect himself. But baseball doesn't work like that, not during the 162-game marathon.

So there was Youkilis on Monday, reporting to Target Field about 24 hours after the Red Sox had sent him packing and going 1-for-4 for the White Sox in their 4-1 loss to the Twins.

He pulled on a black White Sox jersey and thought back to college, when he played for the Cincinnati Bearcats. He looked around the visitor's clubhouse and spotted Adam Dunn and Jake Peavy, teammates with Team USA in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, and Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski, who had prevailed over the Red Sox in the 2005 playoffs.

Youkilis said he doesn't feel strange, but admitted this is a strange time. He was traded in the seventh inning of the Red Sox's game Sunday and was bathed in cheers from the Fenway Park crowd when Bobby Valentine sent in Nick Punto to pinch run for him after a triple.

"Probably the most emotional thing I've ever gone through on a baseball field,'' Youkilis said before his White Sox debut. "Definitely very surreal. It hit me like a ton of bricks when I got pinch run for.''

Youkilis, 33, dressed quickly and left the ballpark, skipping an exit interview with Boston reporters. He fast-forwarded to the next chapter in his career, one that White Sox general manager Ken Williams engineered after consulting with Buddy Bell.

"Every time I watch him, he's always dirty,'' the White Sox vice-president for player development said from the Dominican Republic. "Some guys just get dirty because they fall down a lot; some guys get dirty because they play their ass off. He always is playing his ass off, whether it's going to first or anything else. He's just so into every at-bat, every game. He's always sweaty, always dirty. I like that.''

Bell knew there was a chance the Red Sox would decide to off-load Youkilis to make room for Will Middlebrooks. Their manager is Bobby Valentine — the same guy who pushed the Rangers to trade a 33-year-old Bell in 1985 to turn third base over to Steve Buechele.

Bell watched Youkilis closer in recent weeks but said he didn't know that he was seriously in play with the White Sox "until a couple days ago.'' He wouldn't discuss what he told Williams and assistant GM Rick Hahn but it seems safe to suggest he told them not to dwell on Youkilis' batting average (.233).

"I thought he looked fine,'' Bell said. "He looked healthy, looked like himself. The rest of it is unrecognizable stuff that only a player can feel. … It's how you feel in your heart, your brain. Sometimes your brain gets in the way of your heart, and you get in trouble.''

With Middlebrooks emerging as the fresh hope for 2012 and beyond, Youkilis battled back problems and an inability to escape the fog that rolled into Boston last September, when the Red Sox went 7-20 and ownership fired manager Terry Francona and allowed GM Theo Epstein to leave with a year left on his contract. While Youkilis is a career .287 hitter with a jeweler's vision of the strike zone, little has worked for him.

"I started out really cold,'' Youkilis said. "I haven't been playing up to (my level). I wasn't happy with how I was performing. I was not playing good baseball, wasn't consistent, my playing time went back and forth. It wasn't the way I'm accustomed to playing. I'm excited to come to Chicago and play, have as much fun as I can on the field.''

Bell resurrected his career playing for Pete Rose after the Rangers traded him to the Reds. He believes that change can be good for a player, even when it's forced on a guy with a track record like the one Youkilis compiled in Boston over eight-plus seasons.

Youkilis declined to talk about his relationship with Valentine. He said all the right things about Red Sox fans and Chicago, his new home.

Bell believes Youkilis should make a smooth adjustment because he's not changing leagues, as Bell did when he went from the Rangers to the Reds. He expects Youkilis to be highly motivated but said "if you're not trying to prove yourself, there's something wrong with you.''

Youkilis ducked the question the first time he was asked if he had something to prove. He bit the next time it came around.

"There's a lot of talk saying, 'You can't play baseball anymore,' " he said. "I think I can. I think I can play at a high level. (But) talk is one thing. I have to go out and prove it with my actions.''

How long does it usually take to crawl out from under a ton of bricks?

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ ChiTribRogers