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Heroics go beyond walkoff blow

Had the ball hooked foul and Jason Varitek grounded out on the next pitch, he wouldn't have dominated your television highlights last night and there would have been scant mention of him this morning.

It's a shame, really. It shouldn't take a walkoff home run in the ninth for Boston's burly catcher to leap into our consciousness. His dramatic two-run shot off Oakland reliever Octavio Dotel did rescue Red Sox closer Keith Foulke from utter despair, and it did enable the Sox to head west with an extra spring in their cleats, but that was only the most obvious component of his worth yesterday.

It is the subtle contributions that have earned Varitek that gaudy ''C" on his chest. Small things such as studying reliever Mike Myers's delivery, and his success against the Oakland A's, just in case he was called upon. When Myers took the mound with two on and two outs in the eighth, Varitek already had a plan how to negate Eric Chavez.

Under Varitek's careful watch, Myers coaxed Chavez into a harmless grounder to second, and helped Boston escape a squeamish jam with his efficiency.

" 'Tek came off the field telling me, 'Here's the reason why I wanted to throw so-and-so," Myers explained. "We work together well. He's very cerebral. He studies everything. He learns the hitters' weaknesses and the pitchers' strengths. He knows how to attack a hitter in the first game in a way that will set him up for the third game."

Had Foulke not imploded in the ninth and blown his second save of the year, we would have been showering Matt Clement with flowery headline praise today for seven crisp innings of one-run baseball. It should have been his fifth game without a loss, and it was particularly rewarding because he walked only one batter for the fifth time in the last six games. Clement's most worrisome trait in the past has been his maddening lack of control. Is it a coincidence now that he's with the burly catcher, he seems to have corraled that problem?

"I have a lot of confidence in Varitek," Clement said. ''He's a special player. Unless you're on his team or get to play with him, you don't get the stuff that isn't out there -- like the home runs, or throwing a guy out stealing -- the communication with his pitchers, the taking the extra base when a guy gives it to him, getting the guys ready to go in the clubhouse, the dugout.

"Captain gets thrown around loosely sometimes, but he is. And on top of it all, he's clutch like today."

The headlines will aptly reflect Varitek's homer, which snaked inside Pesky's Pole in right, is the reason the Sox enjoyed back-to-back walkoff home run victories to end this homestand. Kevin Millar provided the power Tuesday night, and Varitek turned this getaway day into a fun coast-to-coast jaunt, instead of a somber trip with far too much time to relive the lowlights.

After Foulke served up four runs in the ninth, including a two-run homer to pesky Eric Byrnes, the captain canvassed the dugout and sensed an urgency to limit the damage for his suddenly mortal closer, who was close to untouchable in Boston's World Series charge last fall.

"Before [I went to the plate], everyone got up and said, 'Hey, it's our turn. He picks us up all the time. Let's pick him up,' " Varitek explained. ''There was definitely energy from our bench to give them something to think about."

With David Ortiz aboard with a walk, and Millar getting under the ball a tad too much to repeat his heroics, Varitek examined two Dotel pitches before depositing the ball in short right field.

"At first I thought it had no chance," Varitek acknowledged. "I didn't even know it was going to go that far. But it kind of stayed and didn't hook. It was lucky, on my part."

Luck has nothing to do with the way he manages his pitchers. Varitek is the first to point out he doesn't mess with mechanics. He's a student who uses film, tendencies, and his own baseball gut to recommend the right pitch.

"For any pitcher, no matter what your role, the least amount of times you have to shake off what you have in mind is better for everyone, particularly for the rhythm of your appearance," Myers said. "I've had catchers call pitches before that I don't throw. They think it's best in a certain situation, but they've forgotten. They think I'm a typical lefthander.

"That's not going to ever happen with 'Tek."

Listen closely, and the buzz in the clubhouse is that Varitek has done wonders for Clement. Aside from his improved control, he hasn't given up a home run in 45{dbcomma} innings and has expanded his pitches. The pitcher deserves all the credit for putting the ball where it needs to go, but the catcher has played a role in suggesting just where those pitches might work best.

"He cut both sides of the plate today," said Varitek, sounding like a proud parent. "He threw a phenomenal sinker. He threw half a dozen changeups. As the game wore on, his slider was better. He did a very good job."

You can be sure as the Red Sox flew to Seattle last night, Varitek pulled out his charts, cranked on his film machine, and took another look at Foulke. In the meantime -- dutifully noting that gaudy ''C" -- he put the brakes on any negative vibes regarding his closer.

"We need Keith," Varitek said. "He needs to get out there and get a few positive outings. We went through this last year with him in spring training.

"He's going to be fine. We can't panic. It's there. It's just a matter of shaping things up."

The captain has often said his job is not about hitting. Yesterday, with a double and a homer, he made sure he's now reached base safely in 12 consecutive games. He's batting .343 with 7 homers and 15 RBIs, numbers any team would love to have for their catcher.

Yet it's the quieter attributes that continue to garner him respect. Consider Clement's comments yesterday. When asked about his pitching performance, he credited Varitek, saying, "You don't want to let him down, for all the preparation he's done."

Game-winning hits are nice. It was the second walkoff homer of Varitek's career, but I'm betting Clement's comments mean more to Varitek than a ball that didn't hook, and allowed us to take another look at the burly guy wearing the mask and the letter C.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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