Marco Scutaro playing through pain

TORONTO -- Boston Red Sox fans won't be able to play "Let's Compare Shortstops" on this trip into the Rogers Centre.

Alex Gonzalez, who essentially swapped places with Marco Scutaro after last season, with Gonzalez signing as a free agent with the Toronto Blue Jays and Scutaro doing the same with the Red Sox, has moved on. Gonzalez was traded to the Atlanta Braves last month for Yunel Escobar, a shortstop who gained a reputation of being an underachiever in Atlanta and was a late scratch from Tuesday's Toronto lineup with a sore knee.

Taking Escobar's place was veteran journeyman John McDonald, a former Providence College star.

Earlier in the season, Scutaro took a beating when held up to Gonzalez, who startled everyone by hitting 11 home runs in the season's first two months after hitting just eight in all of 2009. Gonzalez continues to lead all major league shortstops with 20 home runs, including the three he hit in his first 23 games for the Braves.

Given that the Red Sox didn't push hard to re-sign Gonzalez because they didn't think he would hit enough, that looked like a gross miscalculation. But remember, Boston's concern with Gonzalez was that he didn't get on base enough, and indeed, his on-base percentage this season is .303, even lower than the .316 that GM Theo Epstein found lacking in 2009.

And while Scutaro can't compete with Gonzalez in making highlight-reel plays afield, both shortstops have made 16 errors, and Scutaro's rating in the defensive metric UZR-150 is 5.3, while Gonzalez is at minus-0.9.

Scutaro, meanwhile, leads the Red Sox in a category that takes on added significance in this season of fallen bodies. When he stepped into the batter's box to lead off Tuesday night against Blue Jays lefty Ricky Romero, he was appearing in his 111th game, one more than teammate Adrian Beltre and more games than any other shortstop in the big leagues.

Scutaro has missed just three games despite a pinched nerve in his neck that has bothered him all season and required him to have three cortisone injections, one in his neck and two in his left elbow, which experienced numbness and weakness related to the nerve condition.

"The toughest part of this game, for me, is to try to be consistent and go out there every day," he said. "I think you have to learn how to play with pain, prepare mentally to try and help the team."

The second cortisone injection in his elbow came in St. Petersburg, Fla., just before the All-Star break. Scutaro says the arm has felt pretty good ever since, although he has struggled at the plate of late, batting just .179 (7-for-39) in his past nine games.

But physically, there is no comparison to the way he felt earlier this season.

"In the beginning, it was very, very bad," he said. "To lose strength in one of your arms is pretty bad. My left arm just wasn't working. It just didn't have anything, no strength at all. May was very bad, but I've slowly been getting better."

The condition is one Scutaro says he has dealt with "for a long time." Doctors have recommended against surgery, he said, because an operation could cost him up to 20 percent range of motion in his neck. "They said that maybe after I stop playing I could have the surgery," he said. "For now, treatment and a lot of massage."

Those remedies clearly have their limits, which accounts for the cortisone shots.

"I couldn't even swing the bat," he said. "It was frustrating. I was getting pitches to hit but I couldn't hit them because I had no strength. I constantly kept working, trying to play through it."

His anxiety increased, though, when the triceps muscle in the arm and a muscle in his chest also became affected.

"They just shut down," he said. "I couldn't even feel them. They just went soft. I was concerned. I didn't know what I had. Then I had an MRI and knew what was going on. They told me it would take a little time get my strength back."

Trying to play through the injury, Scutaro said, caused him to tinker with his mechanics at the plate. "I tried a lot of different things," he said, "and my timing got a little messed up. It's still a little messed up, but I'm trying to get it back."

Through it all, Scutaro has maintained a .336 OBP, well below the career-best .379 he posted for the Blue Jays in 2009 but still third among shortstops in the American League, behind Elvis Andrus of the Rangers (.363) and Derek Jeter of the Yankees (.342).

The Sox would have preferred a higher OBP out of their leadoff man, but with Jacoby Ellsbury missing all but nine games until his return last week, they stuck with Scutaro. When Ellsbury went 0-for-16 over four games in the leadoff spot upon his return, Scutaro was reinstalled at the top of the order. But that is likely to be just temporary, as Ellsbury tied a club record with four stolen bases Monday while batting ninth.

Scutaro, meanwhile, lives with the knowledge that the pinched nerve could flare up again at any time.

"I have good days and bad days," he said. "I've been living with this for a long time. I always get a bad neck watching TV, also when we're flying. Plus we sleep in different hotels, on different pillows. It gets real tough."

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.