Red Sox use their backup plan to perfection
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The quartet of former starters, all with moments of greatness, have been relegated to bench players this season.
So they search for a routine, ways to get themselves ready for their rare appearances in the lineup. None of them — Jason Varitek, Mike Lowell, Jeremy Hermida, Bill Hall — have quite figured it out yet.
But, as three of them made their first starts last night, it sure looked like they had — even against Zack Greinke.
Manager Terry Francona had said, perhaps with a bit of apology, that the reserves penciled into the lineup had drawn the short straw. Only Hermida had received an at-bat this season, coming Friday night. So, yes, they were cold.
It didn’t show, not with Hermida lashing a pitch into the right-field bullpen in the fifth inning off the 2009 Cy Young winner, and Varitek following with a homer to a similar spot on the next pitch. Not with Varitek blasting another solo shot in the ninth, giving him two of the Sox’ five homers on the night. Not with Lowell making a diving stab on a grounder by Yuniesky Betancourt in the second inning and throwing a dart to first.
“We beat one of the best pitchers in the game,’’ Francona said. “That was what we set out to do. We have some balance. It’s not a typical bench. It’s guys that are used to playing. There are some challenges there. But we beat a really good pitcher tonight.’’
They did so by scoring six runs via the long ball, en route to an 8-3 win over the Royals in front of 37,505 at Kauffman Stadium. It all started with those back-to-back homers, the first time the Sox have done that this season. And it continued with Varitek proving he has something left offensively, registering his first two-homer game since May 28.
“I don’t know if it’s ever perfect, but he’s done a great job of not only accepting but trying to be the best he can be at whatever we ask him to do — whether it’s warm somebody up, help Victor [Martinez], be the captain,’’ Francona said. “But he took a couple of good swings.’’
The back-to-back blasts “got us going, got a little energy in the dugout,’’ Francona said. “And then we did a good job of spreading it out.’’
“I’m very happy for him,’’ Lowell said. “He’s such a hard worker that you want to see it pay dividends. I think in a role where he might not be getting the at-bats daily like most of last year, it’s probably more of a challenge. That’s a great way to start. I don’t think you can root against Tek, ever.’’
After their offense had slowed during a three-game losing streak, the Sox broke out in support of Josh Beckett, who was far from perfect. He was, however, far better than on Opening Day, when he couldn’t make it through the fifth inning. Last Sunday, Beckett had only his fastball working. Last night, he had much more, including an excellent cut fastball and some good curveballs.
He had been particularly efficient going into the seventh, having thrown just 73 pitches and holding a 4-1 lead. But he threw 32 pitches in the seventh as the Royals scored twice, the second run coming on a single up the middle by David DeJesus that grazed Beckett’s head.
Beckett finished the inning, and Kansas City got no closer against Hideki Okajima (eighth) and Ramon Ramirez (ninth). Boston got a solo homer from Kevin Youkilis to make it 5-3, and Varitek and Dustin Pedroia (two-run shot) finished the bombardment in the ninth.
Beckett got in a hole early on Rick Ankiel’s RBI single in the first — his fifth straight hit against Sox pitching. But the reserves-turned-starters put the Sox on top to stay in the fifth. Varitek had been told by hitting coach Dave Magadan to stay aggressive. So he did.
“Both swings I was able to get the good part of the bat on the ball,’’ said Varitek, who homered on a hanging curveball by Greinke in the fifth (same as Hermida) and on a changeup by Luis Mendoza in the ninth. “Fortunately the ball was carrying a little bit to right. I was able to get them both out.
“I can’t say I felt great and felt locked in. [The ball] didn’t look like a grapefruit, it looked more like a golf ball.’’
Varitek called himself “a work in progress.’’
“I think everybody in that role is trying to figure out how much cardio you do, how much you do this and work out and stay fresh,’’ he said. “We’re all in new areas that we’re trying to lean on our coaching staff to really help us out.’’
So the bench players will continue to work on finding their groove, finding ways to keep ready and keep busy without starting every day. They have talked about the challenges, compared notes on adjusting to their new roles. And, in their first chance, they came through.
“I believe we have good depth on the team, but it definitely feels better when guys that haven’t gotten at-bats can put up quality at-bats and help score some runs,’’ Lowell said. “This is a nice one for us.’’