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Lopez's timing is perfect

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Nothing could have depressed the Red Sox more than watching as Doug Mirabelli stayed on his knees, clearly in pain, after being run over by Carl Crawford on the final play of the first inning in last night's 3-2 victory over the Devil Rays. Because, though Javy Lopez arrived from the Orioles yesterday, the new arrival was supposed to supplement Mirabelli until the return of Jason Varitek.

Now he's supplanting him.

Mirabelli, trying to block the plate after an infield single by Greg Norton, stuck out his left leg, which Crawford bowled over, his spike rolling Mirabelli's ankle. The catcher stayed down after the play -- on which Crawford was out -- and was immediately checked out by manager Terry Francona and trainer Paul Lessard before being helped off the field. And, while Alex Cora was striking out to end the second, Mirabelli was in the on-deck circle, still moving gingerly. After catching in the bottom of the inning, that was it for Mirabelli, who recovered from a twisted ankle in 2002 without missing any Tim Wakefield starts.

``Sometimes the initial pain of the whole situation subsides if you give it five or 10 minutes," said Mirabelli, who walked around the clubhouse with a single crutch, and estimated he would not have an extended layoff, though his ankle had immediately swollen. ``I was hoping maybe in five or 10 minutes that maybe it would go away. Got out there in the second inning, realized I didn't have any lateral strength to push off. I was more of a hindrance to the team at that point."

Lopez, who pinch hit for Mirabelli leading off the third, might be a key player in Boston's bid for a postseason berth.

``I'm ready to catch as many games as [Francona] wants me to," Lopez said before the game. ``I'm ready for it. [Francona] knows what I've been through. He knows that I haven't done much for the Orioles at catcher. I'm willing to catch as many games as he wants me to."

That will be more than he originally thought, at least in the near future. Though Francona was loath to estimate the division of catching duties between Mirabelli and Lopez, who came to the Red Sox for a player to be named or cash considerations in a waiver deal, the manager seemed to indicate there will be a good mix.

Of course, that was before the crash at the plate. Francona said another catcher -- no name was offered -- would be brought up today, though he does not want to put Mirabelli on the disabled list. The only catcher left in Pawtucket, Corky Miller, hit his 11th home run of the season last night, and his eighth since the All-Star break.

``He's going to be down for a few days," said Francona, who added that X-rays were negative. ``I think we're real hopeful it's not going to be a DL. His availability's going to be real questionable for a few days. When he came out of that game I knew he was hurting because he wanted so bad to stay in that game, he just couldn't do it."

So, with that, the pregame speech Francona made to Lopez, the one that told him to sit back and relax on his first night as a member of the Red Sox, became moot. Instead he was getting scouting reports on Curt Schilling, Manny Delcarmen, and Jonathan Papelbon in the dugout between innings. A crash course, so to speak. Which, if nothing else, gave him quite an appreciation for Papelbon's fastball.

``I love calling that fastball," Lopez said. ``I know as a hitter it's pretty tough. I always wonder why people cannot hit that fastball. Now, as a catcher, I can tell why. That ball can raise up. It's pretty hard."

Lopez, who was relegated to backup status when the Orioles signed Ramon Hernandez in the offseason, had caught just 21 games with the Orioles this season, after catching 75 in 2005, and 132 in 2004. Unhappy with being a designated hitter, and not fit to play first base -- though he spent almost all of spring training attempting to acclimate himself to the position -- Lopez spent a good deal of time on the bench this season, during which he's hitting .261 with eight home runs and 31 RBIs. Other than 1999, Lopez caught at least 103 games from 1996 to 2004.

``Until this point, very frustrating," Lopez said. ``There's so many things that [the Orioles] promised me or they told me I was going to do. None of the things that they told me happened. I wasn't ready to be a full-time DH. I don't think DH is the position for me after catching for 13 years. All of a sudden to be at DH, it was pretty frustrating. Maybe that's a big reason why I had a lot of injuries throughout the year. With the back, the shoulder, the neck, that all comes from the lack of activity behind the plate. My body's not as in shape as it used to be when I used to catch every day. Now it is a new beginning, which is perfect."

Lopez will not only be adjusting physically, he'll be trying to gain an understanding of a pitching staff that -- contrary to what he asserted in his pregame interview -- has as many young pitchers as veterans. Lopez said a conversation with Varitek remains high on his to-do list, though he likely won't get to it until the team returns to Boston, where Varitek remains after his surgery.

``There's not going to be a big learning curve," Francona said before the game. ``If there is, that's not good for us. He's an experienced catcher. I know he hasn't caught much [this year], but he has caught for a long time. I think if you just reduce it to the basics of our guys throw it over the plate, change speeds, and he catches it, we'll be OK. He's caught some pretty good pitchers in the past. The more familiarity you have, the better. [But] we don't have that luxury right now."

Not before Mirabelli's injury. And, with that single moment in the first inning, certainly not after.

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