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Sox' leader Varitek must now follow

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  October 7, 2008 11:20 AM

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The catcher is a proud man, and he always has taken pride in being a catcher first. But Jason Varitek found great satisfaction in delivering one of the biggest and most overlooked hits of the game at Fenway Park last night, particularly after the season he had offensively.

"Particularly after being hit for the night before," Varitek retorted in the home clubhouse at Fenway Park after the Red Sox defeated the Los Angeles Angels, 3-2, to advance to their fourth American League Championship Series appearance in the last six years.

"It’s something that I had to [overcome] so that I didn’t [give] away at-bats," Varitek continued. "[Manager Terry Francona] told me before the first game in Anaheim that [pinch hitting for him] might happen, and that’s never happened in my career here. I’ve had some support here from some people, some coaches and some teammates, and without that I might have gone in the tank. It was a tough thing to swallow and have to deal with, but it is what it is."

Varitek paused.

"It is what it is," he repeated, offering a response that was nothing short of Belichickian.

So the Red Sox are back in baseball’s Final Four again, and let there be no doubt about the character of their players and their captain: True grit. Mike Lowell has a bad hip, Josh Beckett looked suspiciously out of sync and J.D. Drew essentially missed all of September, and yet the reigning world champions continue to play in defense of their world title.

Varitek? He hit .220 this year in what was easily the worst offensive year of major league career. From May 24 through Aug. 14, Varitek went 31 for 196 with eight extra-base hits and 63 strikeouts in 61 games. His batting average was .158. He slugged .219. The one-time Silver Slugger Award winner at his position was one of the easiest outs in baseball, and his struggles came during, of all times, a contract year during which he dealt with what unfortunately became a public divorce.

When the Sox added a third catcher (David Ross) to their postseason roster, the writing was on the wall: Varitek had lost the right to hit in key situations. During the regular season, Francona said on more than one occasion that he would not hit for Varitek out of respect for his captain, who has caught more games than any player in Red Sox history. Francona believes in the greater good of his team, of giving proven veterans the respect they deserve, and hitting for Varitek, he argued, would pierce the very essence of his team.

But the playoffs?

That’s another story.

And so, in the ninth inning of Game 3 Sunday in what was then a 4-4 game, Francona sent J.D. Drew to bat for Varitek to lead off the bottom of the ninth, a move that was symbolic if nothing else. As the night turned into morning, the maneuver all but disappeared in what became an epic 5-4 Angels win. Yet the decision clearly resonated with the 36-year-old Varitek, who is not accustomed to watching from the dugout in a stocking cap when the Red Sox experience the biggest moments of any season.

For the better part of his 12 seasons, after all, Varitek has been more than merely the Red Sox’ on-field leader.

He has been their soul.

"I guess I'll always try to do what I think is right for our ball club. Sometimes during the year I think the long-term is more important than people understand,’’ Francona said before Game 4 when asked about his decision to hit for Varitek the night before. "You get to the postseason and sometimes, again, if you don't … Thanksgiving's around the corner and we need to win games. So I guess it all boils down to you try to do what's right. Sometimes, the big picture early in the season is more important, or you have to at least be aware of that. Now, in the postseason with three catchers and some pretty good guys on the bench, it's hard to leave a J.D. Drew not swinging the bat in that situation.’’

Last night, with the Red Sox again in tightly contested affair, Varitek came to bat with one out and Mark Kotsay (single) at first base in what was then a 0-0 game. It was too late to bunt, too early to pinch hit. Angels starter John Lackey jumped ahead of Varitek in the count, 0-2, before throwing ball one. Varitek then fouled off a pitch before taking two more balls, fighting his way back into the at-bat, running the count full and all but ensuring that Kotsay would be in motion.

What happened next might have been the most important development in Game 4, the moment that turned this game in the Red Sox’ favor. With Kotsay running, Varitek (who batted .201 from the left side during the season) pulled a crisp single to right field that placed runners at first and third with one out. Until Lowrie’s winning single against Scot Shields in the bottom of the ninth, it was the biggest hit of the game. Coming from a bottom of the Boston lineup now fraught with holes, Varitek’s single triggered a two-run rally that gave the Sox a 2-0 advantage they preserved until the bottom of the eighth.

As a result of Varitek’s hit, the Red Sox played from in front in this game and never trailed.

"I have [a sizable] difference lefthanded and righthanded, and it’s come to my attention because we have a big media following,’’ said Varitek, who hit .284 from the right side during the regular season. "I had a really bad two months or whatever it was, but late in the year I felt like I got to the point where I was having competitive at-bats. Now I feel like I’m where I need to be."

In the later innings of Game 4, Varitek was similarly where he needed to be. After Justin Masterson keyed a two-run Angels rally by zigging when he should have zagged – "We got crossed up,’’ said Varitek, though Masterson made the mistake – the Angels threatened to take the lead in the ninth. The Angels had one out and a man at third when Varitek and pitcher Manny Delcarmen reminded one another of the Angels’ affection for the suicide squeeze, so the Sox pitched No. 9 hitter Erick Aybar inside (tight) with the go-ahead run on third.

On a 2-0 offering from Delcarmen – after spinning out of the batter’s box twice on high fastballs – Aybar squared; with the pitch darting toward his left hip, Aybar jerked the bat toward him and missed the bunt. Varitek subsequently chased down the speedy Reggie Willits with what he playfully termed his ``closing speed,’’ ending a pivotal succession of maneuvers on which the Red Sox proved to be literally and figuratively one step ahead.

After the game, Sox owners John Henry and Tom Werner made a point of visiting with Varitek to ask him about the manner in which the Sox pitched Aybar. Asked by his bosses if he the Sox continued to pound Aybar inside because they anticipated the squeeze, Varitek nodded.

``We tried not to let Aybar get extended,’’ Varitek said. ``It was a tough pitch to handle, to bunt.’’

The pinch hitting? That is likely to continue in the next round, particularly if the Red Sox carry three catchers, which seems probable now that Lowell is out for the ALCS. Varitek clearly is not happy about it. During the course of his career, Varitek has spent considerable time during the offseason working on his agility and foot speed, all because he never wanted the Red Sox to pinch run for him in the late innings of close games. Now they are hitting for him instead. Varitek was asked last night if he lobbied with Francona when informed of the manager’s plans before the series, and the Sox captain offered an impassioned response that sounded like political garbage and was anything but.

"I don’t want to get into it because I want to put myself aside and do what we have to do to win," Varitek said. "My personal feelings don’t matter. Whoever the manager is, he should have that respect, whether I agree with it or don’t agree with it. That’s what I believe in.’’

Now really:

Doesn’t that all explain why he’s the captain?

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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