Team Comes First For Boston's Underrated Naehring

OAKLAND - If there was a day day when Tim Naehring might allow himself to bask in his own success, it was Monday. The Boston Red Sox had beaten the Oakland Athletics 10-3, while Naehring extended his hitting streak to 17 games.

In every corner of the clubhouse, people were saying nice things about Naehring. His manager, who calls Naehring the best defensive third baseman in the American League, was talking glowingly about the streak, which reached 18 games Tuesday night with a first-inning single. His teammates were gushing about his work ethic and approach.

Still, Naehring was uncomfortable. The mention of the streak made him wince. A question about his hitting made him step back. Talk of his good health and good fortune made him roll his eyes.

"I just don't feel right talking about myself," Naehring said. "You talk about it and suddenly everything goes wrong."

The streak ended the next night when Naehring, who was out of the starting lineup because of back spasms, struck out as a pinch hitter.

Very superstitious? With Naehring, it runs deeper. There is a reluctance to feel content because he has seen things go awry before.

Before 1995, Naehring became a regular on the disabled list. Five trips to the DL in five years, a time when Naehring was expected to become a starting infielder.

That finally happened last season. In his first season as a starter, he hit .307 in 126 games, with 10 home runs and 57 runs batted in. And in his first season at third base, he played as well as anyone in the league.

This season, despite a stint on the disabled list with a hamstring injury, he has been as good as he was last year. The hitting streak raised his average from .279 to .360 going into this weekend's series in Seattle.

Naehring, 29, has been so efficient, he is easily taken for granted. He has been the Red Sox's best defensive player and one of their most consistent hitters.

"I had seen him from the other side and I always respected his abilities, but I didn't know he was so good," Boston Manager Kevin Kennedy said. "I didn't know he could hit to the opposite field so well . . . and do the little things. He's very impressive. He's a good, solid major-league player. And I certainly think he appreciates it."

Indeed, not too long ago it seemed Naehring would never be an everyday player. He was a Triple-A All-Star shortstop in 1990, when he hit 15 home runs in 82 games for Pawtucket. He was promoted to the Red Sox in July and it wasn't long before his bad luck began.

He went on the DL with a back injury and missed the last six weeks of the season. In '91, he was hitting .109 when he went on the DL May 20 in the midst of an 0-for-39 slump. He had back surgery and missed the rest of the season.

"That was tough," Naehring said. "When you go through something like that and wonder if you're ever going to play again, you learn not to get too high or too low. That's why I wasn't too excited about this hitting streak."

Naehring was a utility player in '92, when he spent time on the DL with a wrist injury. In '93, he missed much of the season with a muscle tear in his right shoulder. In '94, he played all four infield positions, yet missed time with an injured finger and jammed ankle.

Last year, the Red Sox traded Scott Cooper in spring training, clearing third base for Naehring. Still, there was a reluctance to hand him the position. Kennedy talked about Terry Shumpert playing third. There were rumors the Red Sox would sign Randy Velarde or B.J. Surhoff.

Even now, there is a possibility John Valentin may eventually move to third when shortstop prospect Nomar Garciaparra is ready.

"I can't control that stuff," Naehring said. "After all I've been through, I just worry about taking care of myself."

Said Valentin: "Timmy appreciates it because of what he's gone through. But he's earned everything. People have to understand that he's a good, solid player. Its always been a matter of staying healthy."

What impresses his teammates most is that Naehring's injuries haven't curbed his style. Naehring is one of the most competitive players on the team, always running hard on the bases and diving after balls.

With the number of injuries Naehring has incurred, there could be a reluctance to abuse his body.

"That's not Timmy," Mo Vaughn said. "The man always plays hard. He wants to win, and he cares about the team. That's what we love about him."