Valentine questions Youkilis' commitment

BOSTON -- Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine in a television interview on Sunday questioned the commitment of third baseman Kevin Youkilis, a comment that could potentially strain his relationship with the three-time All-Star.

"I don't think he's as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past for some reason,'' said Valentine, speaking in the dugout before Sunday's game and shown on WHDH-TV's SportsXTra. "But [on Saturday] it seemed, you know, he's seeing the ball well, got those two walks, got his on-base percentage up higher than his batting average, which is always a good thing, and he'll move on from there."

Youkilis is coming off a season cut short when he underwent surgery for a sports hernia and also dealt with a lower back strain and hip bursitis, the injuries limiting him to 112 games. He did not hit well in spring training, batting just .195 with only one extra-base hit, but that was also the case last spring, when he was coming off surgery for a torn thumb muscle and had an even lower batting average, .175.

He went hitless in eight at-bats in his first two games of 2012 and was sat in favor of Nick Punto, who had three hits, in the team's third game. He was restored to the lineup the next day in Toronto and took another 0 for 4, but the next night had two hits, and in the team's last five games is batting 6 for 18 (.333).

In Sunday's 6-4 win over Tampa Bay, Youkilis singled and walked in three official trips, raising his average to .200. Through the team's first nine games last season, Youkilis was batting just .148 (4 for 27), and finished the month of April batting just .218. But over a 60-game span that took him to mid-July, Youkilis put a line of .313/.408/.518/.925, raising his overall average to a season-high .288.

But injuries then took their toll, and Youkilis lost 30 points on his average by the end of the season, finishing at a career-low .258.

No one, however, had ever raised publicly any questions about Youkilis' commitment to the game. If anything, Youkilis has heard in the past that he was too intense, or played when he probably shouldn't have because he was hurt. Valentine, two weeks into his first regular season as Sox manager, is the first to say he didn't think Youkilis was as "physically or emotionally into the game" as in the past. It is not yet known whether he told the player that directly before making the comment publicly.

Youkilis is in the last year of a 4-year, $41.25 million contract that is paying him $12.25 million this season. He is one of seven Sox players being paid more than $10 million this season. The club holds a $13 million option on Youkilis for the 2013 season, but the physical pounding he has taken in recent seasons, plus the emergence of top third-base prospect Will Middlebrooks, has raised questions about whether the Sox will exercise that option. Questioning his commitment, just nine games into the season, adds even more uncertainty to Youkilis' future with the team.

The Red Sox have an 11 a.m. start for Monday's Patriots Day game against the Tampa Bay Rays. The Sox clubhouse is scheduled to open at 8, and Youkilis can expect to receive questions about Valentine's comments when he arrives. Valentine is scheduled to address the media at 9:15.