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BOB RYAN

Backup keeps popping up

Here's my description of the ideal big league backup catcher: he is smart, incredibly disciplined, extremely hard-working, a total team guy and he hits for power.

In other words, Doug Mirabelli.

It's now been more than three years since Dan Duquette traded with the Texas Rangers for this guy, and it can now safely be said that it has turned out to be one of the Duke's best legacies. People don't spend a lot of time thinking about who might be the premier backup catcher in baseball, but there is a very good chance the answer is Doug Mirabelli, who equaled a career-high last night with four RBIs during the 12-5 triumph over the Yankees.

He had a two-run game-tying home run off Javier Vasquez in the fourth and a two-run double, a smash off The Wall during the climactic seven-run eighth. He was twice hit by a pitch. And he was involved in a quirky and extremely rare bit of baseball ephemera in the first inning, when he caught three consecutive pop-ups. Three!

`No, I've never done that before," marveled Mirabelli. "I've never ever seen that before."

Shaughnessy has. How do you like that? It's true. Colleague Dan Shaughnessy says he saw it happen during a late-70s Orioles spring training game. The catcher was the little-remembered catcher Dave Cruscione and Shaughnessy says Earl Weaver was still babbling about it "deep into the night" at the hotel bar. (Ah, the good old days, before managers started using PCs and drinking bottled water instead of scotch).

The Yankees' first inning went like this: Derek Jeter fouled softly and easily to Mirabelli. One out. Alex Rodriguez fouled one back near the stands and Mirabelli made a bit more testing grab. Two away. Gary Sheffield was up next, and he, too, lofted one back toward the stands and out of play. "I said something about what was happening to the umpire as I was walking back," Mirabelli revealed. "It could have happened right there."

And damned if Sheffield didn't sky one about six feet in front of the plate. For perfect symmetry, it would have been nice if a breeze had blown the ball foul, but you can't always get what you want in this life, so the play went into the old scorebook as a "2," rather than an "F2." But three popouts to the catcher? For some of us, that made the trip to the ballpark worth it right there, and there were still eight innings left.

Mirabelli was etched in the mind, but there was still a ballgame to be won, and he had plenty to do with that. With the Sox trailing, 3-1, in the fourth, he jumped on a Vazquez offering and drove it on a line into the center-field bleachers for his ninth home run of the year. Nine homers is pretty good for a man who plays once every fifth day and who has had only 144 official at-bats. But it's right in keeping with his Boston performance, since he now has 22 home runs in 458 at-bats. That's a good season's production from one of your substitutes.

Delve a little further into Mirabelli's stats and you'll see that he is slugging a lusty .542 and that he has the best average on the team with men in scoring position (.375).

"I take a lot of pride in my hitting," he says. "I'm not surprised when I do it, because of all the work I put into it."

"He works hard and stays on top of his game," confirms batting coach Ron Jackson.

"There's a group of us who work in the cage every day," Mirabelli explains. "There's [Jason] Varitek, Gabe [Kapler], [Kevin] Millar, [Doug] Mientkiewicz and myself. Every day we go with [third base coach] Dale Sveum, and we bounce stuff off each other. We all know about each other's swings. We make adjustments in the cage. You can't put a price on the value of having other players giving you advice."

It's a given that Mirabelli will do a good job handling Tim Wakefield, who, by the way took a big step forward last night, according to his catcher. "Just the quality of his pitches," Mirabelli said. "They were dropping, not spinning. He was fine, except for [Jorge] Posada, who had four ribbies with those two doubles. He must have figured something out. He seems to have a different swing against the knuckler than anybody else."

Mirabelli had some pretty good swings himself, none better than the one he put on that 0-and-1 pitch from Vazquez in the fourth. The Yankees had taken a 3-1 lead in the top of the inning, when Vazquez walked Millar with one away. He fanned Trot Nixon, but Mirabelli came up and really put a charge in one.

"A big, big, big home run for us after they scored those two runs in the top of the inning," said Varitek, who had a nice two-run pinch-hit double in the eighth inning himself. "That got us back in the game and energized the crowd."

But it's really nothing he hasn't been doing for the past three years. The man has made himself into a very dangerous hitter, and he has no illusions about the type of hitter he should be. "That's what we tell him," says Johnny Damon. "You're not up there to hit flares. You're up there to give us some `downs.' I was hoping he'd get one more swing tonight to increase his market value."

He pretty much maxing out his Red Sox value as the game's best No. 2 catcher. "I've been swinging the bat well," he says. "I come in with confidence, believing I'm going to get some hits."

Book this: he'll never have another night like this one. Any big league player could get four RBIs on a good night. But a catcher bagging three pops in one inning? Now that's making some history.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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