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For hustling Varitek, it's better to be safe

To the nitpickers out there, we present you with Yankees second baseman Alfonso Soriano.

To the hometown hero worshipers out there, we present you with Jason Varitek, first-rate catcher by day and fleet-footed pinch hitter by night.

If every yin has its yang, Soriano and Varitek were paired perfectly last night in Boston's 3-2 win in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. Soriano couldn't do much right, and Varitek, rumbling down the first-base line in the seventh to beat Soriano's double play relay, was on the correct side of that fraction of a second that determines good from bad.

"Biggest play of the game, right there," said Red Sox first baseman Kevin Millar, noting how Varitek hustled down the line to beat Soriano's throw, turning a certain double play into a fielder's choice that boosted Boston's lead to 3-1. "He's what, around 250, and the way he hustled down the line right there -- hey, that's why you run hard out of the box every time. That's Jason Varitek right there."

But then there was Soriano. In the fifth inning, moments after the Yankees pulled into a 1-1 tie, Soriano remained fixed at third base on a fly to shallow center field. Had he tested Johnny Damon's arm after tagging up, he might have staked the Bombers to a 2-1 lead But on the orders of third base coach Willie Randloph, he stayed put.

"I have to listen to Willie," Soriano noted. "It wasn't very deep. The only chance I have is he doesn't make a good throw. And Willie said stay."

Indeed he did. Randolph saw that Damon was running straight in on the Jason Giambi fly, presenting little challenge in making the catch, and offering nothing in terms of shifting Damon's momentum to one side of the play or another. Aware that Damon does not possess a strong arm, he elected to hold Soriano.

"I don't second-guess that," said Randolph. "Bernie [Williams] is the next hitter, and I'll take my shot there that he gets a hit and drives in two runs. Now, if I send Soriano and he's out, everyone's saying I shouldn't have sent him and kept the bat in Bernie's hands."

Open to more acute nitpicking, though, was Soriano's questionable positioning and soft throw on the Varitek grounder in the seventh. With the bases loaded and one out, Sox skipper Grady Little brought in Varitek to pinch hit for Doug Mirabelli. Varitek promptly clubbed a grounder to the left side, a shot that initially looked like it might scoot by Derek Jeter for a two-run single.

"I'm thinking, `It's in the hole,' and then I'm thinking, `No, it's not,"' said Varitek. "But Jeter got a great break on it and backhanded it on the short hop."

Millar, on third, broke for home on the crack of the bat. Enter Soriano, moving into position at second for the dish from Jeter and ready to make his pivot and throw. The nitpickers will have it that Soriano drifted too far to the left-field side of the bag to collect the ball, and didn't put enough mustard on the relay to Nick Johnson at first.

"I got about 80 percent on the throw -- that's what I always do on double plays," said Soriano, who added that he collected the ball where he had to, where Jeter threw it. "If I try to get 100 percent on it, I'm too tight, and I have to throw [with too much of a windup]. I want a quick throw and that means about 80 percent."

Whether the throw was longer than it had to be, or whether he didn't put enough arm strength into it, is all that is left for the nitpickers to pick. There was no doubt that Varitek made it, his foot touching the bag with the ball about a glove-length from Johnson's mitt. The big Sox catcher flashed his own safe sign at first, about a glove length ahead of umpire Joe West.

"Well, a little emotion right there, I guess," said Varitek. "I thought I was safe."

Safe at first, and safe from the nitpickers. Game 5 is today, no doubt with more yins and yangs to come.

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