ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Ryan Lavarnway was hitless in four at-bats against the Tampa Bay Rays Monday night, striking out twice. Yet it was one of the more satisfying games of his career.
Righthander Aaron Cook had his best start in weeks, holding the Rays to one run over six innings. Lavarnway took more pride in that than he would have in hitting a home run.
“That was a fun game,” said the Red Sox rookie catcher. “Aaron was really pitching. We had it going pretty well there.”
At 25, Lavarnway is at that stage in his career where the art of calling a game is less of a mystery and more of a science. With each inning behind the plate, Lavarnway’s confidence grows, and the idea that he could become the team’s everyday catcher becomes more viable.
It was not a natural evolution. Lavarnway was drafted as a catcher in 2008 after playing several positions at Yale, and it wasn’t until this season that he became a full-time catcher.
For four years, Lavarnway split time with other catchers while working his way through the minor leagues. Many of his at-bats came as a designated hitter.
But Lavarnway caught 80 games for Triple A Pawtucket and has started behind the plate 20 times for the Red Sox with 13 left to play. For the first time, he knows the physical rigors of a full season behind the plate and the mental test of working with a pitching staff.
“I learned how to call a game from Kevin Millwood last year in Triple A,” Lavarnway said. “Him and Brandon Duckworth. I was like a young deer in the woods and they knew what they were doing.
“Millwood really took me under his wing and we spent a lot of time together off the field. That was the first time I really was taught an advanced approach to calling a game.”
For a developing catcher, those were good teachers. Millwood, 37, has spent 19 seasons in professional baseball with nine organizations and won 169 games in the majors. He started 13 games for Pawtucket in 2011.
Duckworth, 36, was with Pawtucket for two seasons and pitched in 39 games before signing with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in the Japanese Pacific League.
“Millwood is a guy with 16 years in the big leagues,” said Lavarnway. “He’s thrown so many pitches. I had a lot to learn from him. He’s not going to out-stuff hitters, he’s going to out-locate and outsmart them.
“A lot of it has to do with how a hitter reacts to a previous pitch, how your pitcher is reacting, what his intentions are. There’s a lot that goes into game-calling when a guy doesn’t have unbelievable stuff.”
With the Red Sox, Lavarnway has dealt with a variety of pitchers. Cook, who throws predominately sinkers with an occasional cutter, is at one end of the spectrum. He rarely records a strikeout.
Cook has to be handled differently than somebody like Jon Lester, whose velocity and movement can overmatch any hitter.
“Ryan takes a lot of pride in it and I feel like he’s picked it up quicker than some young catchers I’ve seen in the past,” Cook said. “I think he’s handled the pitching staff pretty well.
“He’s good at talking to us and asking us what we want to do on a certain day and incorporating that into the scouting report. I think he has a pretty good feel for what is going on during the game, too.”
Said Lavarnway, “A guy who throws 97 and has a crazy curveball doesn’t have to pitch. He can throw. It’s great when you get both. A guy like Jon Lester has great stuff and he can really pitch.
“But you don’t see both too often. That’s why you have to learn how to call a game and give your pitcher the best chance to succeed.”
As the Red Sox play out the remaining games in a losing season, one of the few positives is giving a player such as Lavarnway more experience with the major league staff.
“That relationship takes time,” said manager Bobby Valentine. “I don’t think it’s magical. For [Lavarnway], it’s very good working with the different pitchers that we have.”
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the regular catcher for most of this season, said John Smoltz was a great influence on him during his rookie year with the Atlanta Braves in 2007. When Saltalamacchia was traded to Texas, it was Millwood, coincidentally, who took on a mentor’s role.
“It’s different once you get to the majors, because the pitchers are better and you have a lot of information to process,” Saltalamacchia said. “For a young catcher, having a veteran pitcher teach you is incredibly valuable.”
Lavarnway was the DH against the Rays Tuesday. He went into the game hitting .155 with two home runs and seven RBIs in 103 at-bats. But those statistics do not concern him.
“I’ve always hit,” he said. “My focus this season was to take my defense to the next level. I put a lot of time and effort into that.”
Lavarnway, who had two hits and two RBIs in Tuesday night’s 7-5 win, is a career .286 hitter in the minors with an .882 OPS. His future in the organization will be more tied to whether he is a capable catcher. That Lavarnway was selected as the best defensive catcher in the International League was a good sign. So are the games he has been catching in recent weeks.
“I’m comfortable with Ryan behind the plate,” Cook said. “That’s probably the best compliment I can give him.”