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He's caught on to unique role

Pinned to the top of Doug Mirabelli's locker is a Biblical verse, Joshua 1:9.

"Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified, do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you where you go."

Who knew the Bible carried advice for a catcher working with a knuckleball pitcher?

"It took me a while to learn how to do this," acknowledges Mirabelli, who has caught Tim Wakefield in 32 of the righty's 33 starts this season. "I was nervous at first. I didn't think I'd be able to do it. I always felt I had good hands behind the plate, but this humbled me fast. It makes me nervous every time I catch him."

It would be demeaning to call Mirabelli a "backup" catcher. On this team he is more like an auxiliary catcher, a fully qualified major league catcher who has continually improved as a player, but who himself would question the sanity of any manager who would start him regularly over Pudge Rodriguez and Jason Varitek, the last two men he has played behind.

"Doug Mirabelli is a tremendous catcher," says Varitek. "People don't realize the job the two of us do together. We work together extremely well with this pitching staff. He's done a tremendous job with Wakefield all year, which gives me a mental break, as much as anything else. He's got tremendous hands, he throws well and he's just a great teammate."

There is no getting around the fact that catching Wakefield in these two playoff wins against the Yankees represents a career peak for Mirabelli, who arrived here in the summer of 2001 with no confidence after being discarded by both the Giants and Rangers.

"I'm having a blast," he says. "It's just great that Grady [Little] has the confidence in me to keep me in the lineup in these playoff situations. I caught Wake all season, but you can look at that as just giving Jason a day off. This is very special for me."

Mirabelli went the full nine in Game 1 last Wednesday in Yankee Stadium, and he caught the first six innings last night before being pinch hit for by Varitek in the seventh. That turned out to be a key move for the Red Sox, as Varitek hustled his way out of a potential inning-ending 6-4-3 double play and into an RBI fielder's choice by beating Alfonso Soriano's throw by a tick.

"I would have loved to hit in that situation," Mirabelli said. "But that's part of the game."

When Mirabelli came to Boston he had never caught a knuckleball pitcher. Wakefield himself has the services of a permanent tutor in Hall of Famer Phil Niekro. Mirabelli had nobody.

"Not really," he said. "The only person I could talk to was Hatty." That would be Scott Hatteberg, with whom Mirabelli platooned in the final two months of that dreadful 2001 season. Varitek, you may recall, had been lost for the season in June after running afoul of that poorly conceived rubber logo that formed an arc behind home plate that year and tearing up his elbow.

Even now, with 2 1/2 years of experience catching Wakefield, Mirabelli says it's all "trial and error."

"I have no idea what's going to happen," he explains. "If I knew what it was going to do before he threw it, I wouldn't have so many passed balls. It can move two or three times. It can go up, down, left or right.

"I'll analyze stuff to death, and I'm still working on it. Learning how to catch the knuckleball is a continuous process, because it's never the same. One day it breaks this way, and just when you think you're sure, the next day it breaks that way. But what's going on now is fun. One night in Texas when I had four or five passed balls -- that was not fun."

Catching Wakefield can do a job on your ego. "It's tough, knowing you'll be leading the league in passed balls," he says.

He had one last night and, predictably, it was on a pitch that was called a strike. This is the knuckleball catcher's ultimate occupational hazard, and it speaks to the reason why there are so few knuckleball pitchers left and so few managers willing to take a chance on the ones plying their fluttery trade. Some managers can't get beyond the passed balls and assume that every bases-loaded situation is a four-run inning waiting to happen. To make sure that doesn't happen, a manager must have the proper guy behind the plate.

Mirabelli has turned out to be that guy in Boston. But would he be the official, permanent Wakefield batterymate if all he could do was catch that elusive pitch? He thinks not. Doug Mirabelli occasionally likes to remind people that he can be a dangerous person with a bat in his own hands.

In his 173 regular-season games with the Red Sox, Mirabelli has knocked out 22 homers in 455 at-bats. That's about four-fifths of a full season for a big league regular, so what this means is that Mirabelli has given his team much more than ordinary backup catching potency at the end of the batting order. The fact is that Mirabelli works hard at hitting and takes great pride in it. Take note that he has a base hit in each of his two playoff starts.

"I feel I've gotten better and better as a hitter while I've been here," Mirabelli maintains. "I don't want the team to feel that I'm an automatic out when I get up there."

This is not the life he envisioned for himself, but what player ever starts out in organized baseball casting himself as the best friend rather than the leading man? Mirabelli was no different, but he now knows who he is, and he's perfectly comfortable with it.

"If I'm going to be a backup catcher, I want to be the best backup catcher there is, and I think I have the ability to do that," he declares. `I'm not saying I am the best, but I think I have the ability to do it."

Whether he is or isn't, he is strong and he's never discouraged when Wakefield is on the mound. Nor is he terrified. But he sure is humbled every now and then.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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