Red Sox notebook

Tonight could be end for Varitek

Contract expiring; status is in doubt

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / October 16, 2008
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Jason Varitek wouldn't acknowledge it yesterday, but tonight's game at Fenway Park could be the team captain's last in a Red Sox uniform. Given a contract that expires after this season, and a markedly poor offensive year, there could be a parting of the ways between Varitek and the only major league team he has played for.

Asked if he had thought about that possibility, Varitek said, "That's totally irrelevant now to what this team is facing. Sorry about that."

Manager Terry Francona echoed his catcher, saying, "I've given no thought to this being his last game, not out of disrespect to Tek, but we don't want this to be his last game."

Varitek faced the same issue in the 2004 postseason as the Sox pushed toward their first World Series title in 86 years. But that offseason, the Sox signed him to a four-year, $40 million deal.

While the Sox don't have much in the way of catching in their minor league system, there is no guarantee Varitek will return. He had the worst offensive year of his career in 2008: a .220 average with a .313 on-base percentage and a .359 slugging percentage. As good as his skills are at calling a game, those are difficult numbers to abide out of a starting catcher.

It has gotten worse for him offensively in the postseason. Varitek is hitless in 10 at-bats in the American League Championship Series and went 3 for 14 in the Division Series.

Still, it is hard to overlook what he can do for a pitching staff, and how much pitchers enjoy throwing to him.

"When Jason puts a finger down, there's a pretty good chance that the pitcher is throwing that pitch with conviction," Francona said. "If a major league pitcher has got stuff like Daisuke [Matsuzaka] or [Jon ] Lester [and] is throwing a pitch with conviction, I'm not sure it can be a wrong pitch. And because of Tek's preparation, that's what's going to happen. That doesn't happen overnight, that takes a long time, and Tek deserves that. But it really does help, and there's something to that. You don't see a lot of guys out there wondering or second-guessing Jason. That's very, very helpful."

Matsuzaka seconded that thought. And though it wasn't quite the same as the "Re-sign Lowell" sign Varitek held during the Sox' victory parade last year, Matsuzaka cast a vote for Varitek's return.

"For two years over all those games that Varitek has caught for me, I've been able to pitch with less and less stress over that time, and that certainly has helped me in my performance as well," Matsuzaka said through interpreter Masa Hoshino. "Any time a pitcher pairs up with a new catcher, there's some adjustments that need to be made, and it's not an easy process. So I just hope I get to be paired up with the same catcher for as long as possible."

Ortiz not worried

Though David Ortiz managed to extricate himself from his 0-for-14 skid with an improbable triple Tuesday night, he has not been the overpowering offensive figure he has been in the past. He hasn't looked right at the plate all series, nor did he in batting practice during the team's optional workout yesterday at Fenway Park.

"I'm all right," Ortiz said after Game 4. "I'm dealing with my hands and stuff. Right now it's a situation that is a [do]-or-die situation and I don't want to put too many things in my head."

When asked about it again yesterday, Ortiz said, "I'm OK. Next question."

Switch of hitters?

With the Rays' Scott Kazmir pitching Game 5 instead of James Shields, there could be another shuffling of the Sox' lineup. Francona installed J.D. Drew in the leadoff spot for Game 4 and benched the struggling Jacoby Ellsbury in favor of Coco Crisp. But things could change with a lefthander on the mound. Drew was not in the starting lineup against Kazmir in Game 2. "I don't know that it'll affect who plays," Francona said. "It may affect our batting order. We've been looking at it a little bit and will continue to do that." Crisp has good numbers against Kazmir: 9 for 30 (.300) . . . While the Sox know tonight's game could be their last, they'll have their bags packed for a possible Game 6 in St. Petersburg, Fla. So too was there preparation in Game 4, amid the carnage, for the rest of the series. "You try to manage not only wins but manage losses, and there is something to be said for that," Francona said. "We tried the other night [Monday] to just use [Paul] Byrd. Fortunately, that's what we did do, because we followed it up with a game when we were into the bullpen in the third inning, and we got away with [using] everybody but [Hideki] Okajima and [Jonathan Papelbon]. We could still go to [Manny] Delcarmen and [Justin] Masterson, but we have a very fresh Oki and Pap that we can lean on." . . . The Sox have won their last seven elimination games in the ALCS, three in 2007 and four in 2004 . . . Since starting the postseason 22 for 77 (.286) in the first two games of the ALDS against the Angels, the Sox are batting just .226 (49 for 217) in the last six.

American League Championship Series
Series Overview
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