September 20, 2013

On Baseball: Salty's caught on as pressure catcher

By Kevin Thomas kthomas@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BOSTON - When the Boston Red Sox begin playing October baseball, Jason Varitek will not be catching.

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Boston's Jarrod Saltalamacchia , right, receives high-fives after scoring the winning run on Aug. 28 in a game against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park. With catcher Jason Varitek now in his second year of retirement, Saltalamacchia is the new leader.

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It's been a while. The last Red Sox playoffs that did not include Varitek took place in 1995.

Since then, Tek's presence has been felt. He was the captain. The leader.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia is not Jason Varitek. He doesn't have to be.

"More than anything, Salty's become his own guy," Red Sox Manager John Farrell said. "He stands on his own feet. He's a much more confident player. It shows in his leadership on the field."

Farrell was the Red Sox pitching coach when Boston obtained Saltalamacchia, 28, on July 31, 2010, in what appeared to be a minor deal.

Saltalamacchia was once a prime catching prospect (dealt by Atlanta to Texas in a deal for Mark Teixeira). But he never broke through with the Rangers, and Texas sent him to Boston for three minor leaguers.

Saltalamacchia was injured in 2010 and played only 10 games. In 2011, with Varitek's time decreasing, Saltalamacchia played 103 games, batting .235 games with 23 doubles and 16 home runs.

The average dropped to .222 last year (17 doubles and 25 homers).

This year: the breakthrough. Through Wednesday night's game: .264, 37 doubles, 13 home runs.

"He's more a complete hitter," Farrell said. "I think doubles reflect a more complete hitter than home run totals. To me that's hitting to the situation instead of being one-dimensional a willingness to use all fields."

A smarter hitter. A smarter catcher.

"Just noticing in conversations with him -- from conversations in spring training to where we are now -- he knows our pitchers much more readily," Farrell said. "He makes much more appropriate pitch selections."

Varitek used to talk about calling for a pitch that the pitcher will "throw with conviction." It may not be the best pitch, but it's the one the pitcher is most confident in throwing at the time.

A catcher has to understand his pitchers well.

"It's getting to know these guys," Saltalamacchia said, "what they like to do, what they don't like to do, what they're capable of. Once you get that down, it's pretty easy."

And with Varitek now in his second year of retirement, Saltalamacchia is the new leader.

"I feel more comfortable being able to say more things because I know (the pitchers)," Saltalamacchia said. "You can't just walk into a clubhouse and demand things. I'm getting to know these guys. It's made me feel more comfortable."

"We're watching a guy starting to come into his own, both as an offensive and defensive player," Farrell said.

Saltalamacchia's timing is stellar for two different reasons. One, he's ready to lead these Red Sox on a postseason run.

Two, more personally, Saltalamacchia enters free agency after this year. He should be getting quite a bump from his one-year, $4.5 million deal this year.

His caught-stealing numbers are not impressive (21.5 percent), but it has been good enough, especially with his leadership, play-calling and offensive game.

The free-agent talk can wait. October is coming. Boston relied on the leadership of its previous catcher for two World Series wins.

Now its Salty's turn.

NOTES: Shane Victorino jammed his thumb Wednesday and sat out Thursday. "It's not an overriding concern," Farrell said. ... The Sox juggled their rotation. Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Felix Doubront will pitch this weekend, in that order. Jake Peavy pitches Tuesday in Colorado. Wednesday is TBA. Depending on the importance, Boston could use a call-up (Steven Wright?) Wednesday and send Ryan Dempster to the bullpen, where he is expected to be for the playoffs. ... Jonny Gomes was punting a football around Fenway before Wednesday's game. "Sixty yards," he announced after one kick. "(Bill) Belichick will take that right now."

Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:

kthomas@pressherald.com

Twitter: @ClearTheBases

 

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