- Gordon Edes, ESPN Staff Writer
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BALTIMORE -- Besides mocking the high anxiety that gripped Boston Red Sox followers unhinged by the early returns, here's something else the reshuffled Sox pitching rotation has accomplished. Under the original alignment, Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka followed each other in the rotation. Now Jon Lester is slotted between the two right-handers.
What does that do? It gives Red Sox manager Terry Francona the option of using Jason Varitek to catch both Beckett and Matsuzaka and have a day off in between, not a bad idea given that Varitek turned 39 earlier this month.
Francona said all spring that he doesn't want to assign pitchers a "personal" catcher, but he decided to keep Varitek together with Beckett and was rewarded with a third straight terrific start. Now, after back-to-back starts in which Matsuzaka has allowed just one hit in each and pitched a total of 15 scoreless innings, all with Varitek catching, it would seem a given to keep that pairing for at least another turn.
Clay Buchholz pitches the opener of the three-game series against the Baltimore Orioles that begins Tuesday night in Oriole Park in Camden Yards. Jarrod Saltalamacchia caught Buchholz's first three starts, with Varitek drawing him last Wednesday in Oakland, which was a day game after a night game. Varitek then came back the next night in Anaheim and caught Beckett, who allowed just two runs in eight innings and has a 1.17 ERA (3 ER in 23 IP) in his past three starts.
Two nights later, Varitek caught Matsuzaka, who featured a phenomenal changeup in a dominating performance over the Los Angeles Angels, perhaps even more impressive than his one-hit, seven-inning outing against the Toronto Blue Jays on Patriots Day. Matsuzaka, in his previous start with Saltalamacchia behind the plate, lasted just two innings while giving up seven runs, and was savagely booed in Fenway Park.
Varitek acknowledged that results might dictate a change in approach.
"We're a team,'' he said this past weekend. "We're going to go out and do whatever we need to do. If it means catching Beckett, fine. If it means catching Dice sometimes, fine. We're a team. It may be catching [Buchholz]. It may be catching [John] Lackey. We have to mix and match and do the things that help this team give ourselves the best chance to win.''
Saltalamacchia has caught 13 of the team's first 21 games. Varitek has caught eight, which would put the backup on pace to catch 61 games, or 38 percent of the time. That's more than your typical backup, but Francona had come into spring training predicting that he'd be calling on Varitek more than the usual reserve catcher.
"I like to play,'' Varitek said, "so I can't argue with it.''
The one thing Varitek would like to avoid is creating a fuss over the issue.
"I just don't think we need to dramatize the situation,'' he said. "There are going to be situations where through a long season we'll need to break things up. I'm not saying it might not always be that way, but don't make it more dramatic than it is. We're a team.''
Saltalamacchia caught all the Sox starters except Matsuzaka during the first turn of the rotation, a span in which the highly touted five combined to give up 21 runs over 20 innings, an earned run average of 9.45. That gave rise to barbed commentary about Saltalamacchia's abilities to call a game, which were not quieted when Matsuzuka was lit up for seven runs by the Tampa Bay Rays with Saltalamacchia behind the dish.
Never mind that the sample size wasn't big enough to fill a test tube, or that Saltalamacchia wasn't the one throwing badly located pitches right over the plate. Already targeted as the team's biggest question mark entering the season, the poor pitching performances only reinforced the suspicion that Saltalamacchia somehow was at fault.
But with Varitek relieving Saltalamacchia of catching Beckett and Matsuzaka, the 25-year-old receiver has been rewarded with strong performances by Lackey and Lester, who have combined to allow just two earned runs in their past 26 innings. That's an ERA of 0.69, which should quiet those quick to blame Saltalamacchia early on.
"We were real comfortable today,'' Saltalamacchia said about working with Lackey, who singled out his catcher for praise after Sunday's eight shutout innings, saying it was the best they'd been together this season.
"It's been fun,'' the catcher said. "It just was taking its time getting there. I think everyone was just kind of wanting to make the perfect pitch, and it seemed like every mistake we made was being hit.
"But these guys have a game plan, and I'm getting on the same page.''
That's not to say the Sox catching corps is free of issues. Saltalamacchia's scattershot throwing will continue to be monitored until he demonstrates that he not only has plenty of arm strength -- he does -- but can consistently connect with his target.
And both catchers are off to slow starts at the plate, dreadfully so for Varitek. Saltalamacchia is batting .186 with just two extra-base hits, both doubles, and has struck out 15 times in his first 43 at-bats. Varitek is batting just .074, with 10 whiffs in 27 at-bats, although he delivered his first extra-base hit, a double, and knocked in his first run in Saturday's 5-0 win over the Angels.
With the team winning eight out of its past nine games, and the Sox starters seemingly outdoing each other in virtuosity on a nightly basis, the team has the luxury of waiting for the bats to come around. Sox catchers are batting a combined .143, lowest average in the American League, but Boston is one of five AL teams whose catchers are hitting below .200 for the season.
Varitek has been in offensive decline for some time, though he showed some power from the right side last season, hitting seven home runs overall in his first 112 at-bats, before fracturing his right foot on June 30. Saltalamacchia has yet to hit in the big leagues the way that was expected of him when he was a top prospect with the Atlanta Braves, but he has had injury issues.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.
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