- Pedro Gomez, MLB
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NEW YORK -- Daisuke Matsuzaka turned in his third straight impressive outing for the Red Sox on Saturday night, mostly handcuffing a New York Yankees lineup that very well could be the most difficult one-through-nine order to maneuver through.
But almost lost through Matsuzaka's 115-pitch performance, one in which he allowed just a solo home run to Robinson Cano in seven innings and escaped a bases-loaded jam with no outs in the fifth, was the person at the receiving end of Matsuzaka's pitches: Victor Martinez.
Martinez, acquired from Cleveland in a July 31 trade deadline deal to help bolster the Red Sox's offense, had never caught Matsuzaka before Saturday. Martinez has now been behind the plate for all of Boston's pitchers, a sign that could indicate that Martinez, and not Jason Varitek, will be catching most of the Red Sox's innings during the postseason.
"I think they're doing that with the idea that if we get into the playoffs it won't be the first time catching them,'' Martinez said. "It's good for me and good for the pitchers. Dice was with me the whole game.''
That point was further underscored in the fifth inning, after Matsuzaka loaded the bases with nobody out and the middle of the Yankees' order due up. Martinez called for a changeup that had Alex Rodriguez fooled and his weight shifted too far forward to be able to drive the ball. Instead, Rodriguez dribbled a ball a few feet in front of the plate. Martinez pounced on it, turned and dove back toward the plate, extending his glove hand to the plate and just in front of a sliding Derek Jeter for the force out.
Martinez called the same sign on the next pitch and an off-balance Hideki Matsui hit a high popup behind the plate that Martinez cradled into his mitt. Nick Swisher also fouled out, this time to Mike Lowell at third base, and the threat and the inning were over with Martinez playing a significant role.
While the Red Sox ended up losing the game 3-0, the combination of Matsuzaka and Martinez worked well together.
"I think a lot of people forget that he's an All-Star catcher,'' Lowell said.
Indeed, Martinez was an All-Star catcher three times while with Cleveland, including this past summer. And while Martinez has never been known for his defensive exploits, he has worked hard to become a more complete catcher since arriving as the Indians' everyday catcher late in 2003.
"I know when he first came up he had a tough time calling games,'' said former Indians teammate CC Sabathia, who now pitches for the Yankees. "I was with him through the minors and I've seen how hard he's worked. He takes pride in being the best he can be. By 2005 and 2006 he was calling all of our games.''
Sabathia thinks so highly of Martinez that he credits the catcher with a large part in his Cy Young Award-winning season in 2007.
"He absolutely gets a lot of credit,'' Sabathia said. "He was my biggest motivator. He was always behind me, telling me we could get certain hitters with certain pitches. He was always encouraging me.''
On the other side of Martinez's increased playing time is the decreased role of the Red Sox's captain, Varitek. The 12-year veteran and mainstay behind the plate for Boston during their championship years is no longer a lock to be in the same role once the playoffs begin. Varitek's plummeting batting average -- he's down to .209 after Sunday's loss in New York -- is the primary reason his playing time is down.
But not surprisingly to those inside the Red Sox clubhouse, Varitek has been first in line to help Martinez any way imaginable.
"There's a reason they put that 'C' on his chest,'' manager Terry Francona said. "He still exhibits a lot of leadership. He helps out Victor quite a bit. He will continue to be very important to us. He's having a hard time, but he's tough. He continues to work hard.''
Said Varitek: "What am I going to do? Turn my back on my teammates? I want to win. If there are things from my experiences that I can pass on to Vic, I will do that. Plus, I like Vic.''
Francona believes there's a direct connection between Varitek's innings behind the plate and his sinking batting average. But Varitek doesn't -- or won't -- see it that way.
"I don't know. I can't say that,'' Varitek said. "No, I'm not going to make any excuses."
Varitek's humbleness is a major reason his teammates voted him as the club's captain and he remains one of the sagest voices inside the Sox's clubhouse. But there is no denying Martinez possesses the more potent bat, and that point was further illustrated when Martinez was called on to pinch-hit for Varitek in the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium on Sunday.
"Vic will be fine wherever they put him in,'' Sabathia said. "He's gotten a lot better. I know there are some veteran pitchers [in Boston]. But I know he watches a lot of video and has studied with those guys and gotten better. He's a very quick learner.''
1dKevin Van Valkenburg