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Lavarnway is the right play

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  September 28, 2011 01:02 PM

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Don't know about you guys, but I haven't been at this level of tension and anticipation for a single Red Sox game since -- well, probably Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS. Can't stop thinking about it, so might as well write about it. Here are a couple of pregame thoughts before game No. 162, hopefully not the season's last . . .

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I've gone back and forth on this, with Mr. Ryan on Globe 10.0 this morning as well as in my own whistle-pea brain, and as first pitch grows nearer I become more and more convinced that there is only one reasonable choice for Terry Francona to start behind the plate tonight is the one, thank heavens, that he eventually made.

Of course Ryan Lavarnway should play over Jarrod Saltalamacchia tonight. There really should have been no debate.

The most obvious reasons why are evident in last night's box score. The kid catcher from Yale hit two home runs and drove in four runs in the Red Sox' 8-7 victory, and if not for a phenomenal catch by Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis, would have had six RBIs, maybe seven. No matter how tonight and perhaps tomorrow play out, Lavarnway's performance is assured a permanent place in Red Sox lore.

But the most convincing Play The Kid, Tito argument has less to do with Lavarnway and more to do with Saltalamacchia. He's had a very encouraging first full season in Boston, winning the trust of the pitching staff, overcoming his throwing issue that threatened to ruin his career, and reestablishing himself at age 26 as potential long-term solution behind the plate. I believe he is the Red Sox' catcher of the future in part because the consensus seems to be that Lavarnway won't remain at the position, but the present tense is what matters right now, and it's very difficult to argue he should be behind the plate for any reason other than that it's been his job for most of the season.

He's hurt, having taken a direct hit of a foul ball off his collarbone Monday night. He's not hitting, batting .162 with one walk and 27 strikeouts this month. He's struggled somewhat defensively (still can't believe he whiffed on that relay throw Monday). And any belief that he's a security blanket for Jon Lester is countered by the reality that the lefthander has a 5.96 ERA and three losses this month. There's not a hell of a lot of security in those numbers.

When forced to use Lavarnway Wednesday night, Francona had the good sense to bat him sixth in the lineup. Tonight, he will hit fifth, and kudos to Tito for that. When given an apparently choice tonight between giving Lavarnway, who was named the best hitting prospect in the International League this season ahead of Yankees sensation Jesus Montero, a shot at an encore or playing the struggling and bruised incumbent in Saltalamacchia, common sense and the desperation of the moment trumped some vague code of loyalty.

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chenbrucefinn.jpgThis is all you need to know about the present perception of John Lackey by the same people who determined he was worthy of a $82,500,000 contract less than two years ago: They are considering trading a prospect or two to Kansas City to acquire Bruce Chen to make one start.

Yes, that Bruce Chen, the 13-year veteran of 10 major league franchises, the Bruce Chen who has been league-average the last two seasons for the Royals -- a dozen wins each season, an ERA+ of 101 last year and 102 this year, the Bruce Chen who has never thrown a pitch in a postseason game, the Bruce Chen who ranks 1,042d all-time among pitchers on baseball-reference's eloRater, sandwiched in eternal mediocrity right between Tomo Ohka and Carlos Silva.

The Bruce Chen who pitched five games for the Red Sox in 2003, not an inning of which you remember. Or that Theo Epstein remembers, apparently.

That the Sox are pursuing a mediocre starter to pitch a game on which their season -- and the perception of the manager and general manager -- hinges tells you that either Lackey's elbow is hanging by a thread or the Red Sox have not a shred of faith that he can bear any resemblance to the pitcher who won Game 7 of the 2002 World Series as a rookie or even the one who pitched 7.1 shutout innings in Game 1 of the 2009 ALDS. If he's not on the mound tomorrow and Bruce Chen is, then I'll consider it evidence that the Red Sox will give serious thought to swallowing the rest of his fat contract.

Some of the names on Chen's career comp list are sure to make a Sox fan shudder: John Halama, Scott Schoeneweis, Kent Mercker, Matt Young, and perhaps most appropriately, Pete Schourek.

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Unless Lester's assurances that he is healthy turn out to be as inauthentic as that slight Texas drawl the son of Tacoma native seems to have picked up, I am confident that he will come through tonight with a performance that allows us to forget his strangely hapless September (three losses, 5.96 ERA) or the fact that for all of his success in his career (76-34 career record), his record in big games has been spotty lately after a sensational start.

History has some value here -- he's owned the Orioles in his career (14-0, 2.33 ERA), and the lineup Buck Showalter will put on the field to face Lester tonight has few hitters who have had any success against him.

Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, and Vladimir Guerrero all have a career batting average of .220 or lower against Lester, and the highest slugging percentage of the three belongs to Guerrero at just .357.

Now, if he'll just stop nibbling and trust his fastball a little bit more -- something The Eck has been saying for weeks -- the Sox should survive to play another day.

Now, if Dellin Betances can somehow channel Rick Waits . . .

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Last question:

So what inning does Jacoby Ellsbury hit his home run tonight? I have the third inning with Marco Scutaro on base in the office pool. Don't have a feel for when he'll hit the second homer, though.

See! Optimism! And in Ellsbury, the MVP of the league as far as I'm concerned, it's genuine.

Man, this game needs to hurry up and get here.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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