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Still a hit despite struggle at plate

Varitek's value is immeasurable

Jason Varitek crouched behind home plate before the eighth inning yesterday when a message on the video screen in center field caused the fans to stand and cheer.

Varitek, unaware that the message -- the ovation -- was for him, continued to catch Julian Tavarez's warm-up tosses.

It was fitting, of course, that Varitek, with his business-minded reputation, was too busy with Tavarez to notice the fans were cheering because yesterday was the Gold Glover's 990th game behind the plate as a Red Sox, tying him with Carlton Fisk for the club record.

``[The cheering] kept getting louder, and I didn't know quite what was going on," Varitek said after Boston's 8-1 loss to Oakland. ``Then I saw myself on the scoreboard and I was like, `Oh' . . . It gave me some chills because I really didn't know exactly what it was at the time. It just, you know, was very appreciated from the fans."

And so as Oakland's Bobby Crosby walked to the batter's box, Varitek stood, took off his mask, and waved briefly to the fans. An understated thank you from the grateful captain who quickly slapped his mask back over his helmet, knelt down, and finished his job.

The cheering was no doubt a welcome respite for Varitek, who is steady as ever behind the plate, but has been struggling when standing next to it. He's hitting .242 for the season and just .209 in July. Against Oakland, though, Varitek seemed to figure something out. He went 6 for 15 (all singles) during the four-game series and said he was ``really starting to get my bat path where I wanted it."

For manager Terry Francona, though, Varitek's performance at the plate is not an issue.

``When he's not hitting, it really doesn't matter because he's a catcher first," said Francona. ``And if we win, that's what he's heading out to do. It's fantastic. He has a lot of responsibility. I can't think of a better person to handle the responsibility."

With a host of young pitchers and an oft-changing starting rotation, Varitek has had no shortage of homework this season. When Kyle Snyder, who took the loss yesterday in his second start for the Sox, showed up in the clubhouse before his first game with Boston, he pulled up a chair next to Varitek and told him what he could throw.

Throughout the season it's been routine for the young pitchers, namely Jonathan Papelbon and Jon Lester, to give Varitek full credit for their outings, acknowledging how they lean on their catcher.

And last week, Curt Schilling said that in Chicago he turned it all over to Varitek, one veteran listening wholeheartedly to another.

``It's what I'm prepared to do," Varitek said of pitchers relying on his calls. ``So it doesn't really change what I do. It gives me a little more freedom at times. It keeps my mind fresh and keeps me moving.

``But it's about what they have to offer and what they have to do. You can't ask them to do something that's against their strengths and against something that they can do. But you can be creative with what they have the abilities to do."

Varitek will break Fisk's record, perhaps get another standing ovation, as soon as today, though Doug Mirabelli is scheduled to start behind the dish with Tim Wakefield starting the opener of a three-game series against Kansas City. He will keep playing (Francona said he doesn't like to miss a game), pitchers will keep praising him, and even though his offensive output this season has been disappointing, Francona will take his captain as is.

``[His defense] is a given here, which is great," Francona said. ``I'm not sure it's that way everywhere. We certainly understand [that]."

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