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ON BASEBALL

The captain rights the ship

NEW YORK -- This was your captain speaking, and his message resonated from the Bronx to Barnstable.

Don't write off Jason Varitek's bat just yet.

The Red Sox catcher stepped up offensively in Boston's 9-3 win last night over the Yankees, just when it appeared the Bombers, who were minus their captain, Derek Jeter (sore thumb), appeared bent on sweeping the three-game set.

Varitek delivered an RBI single when the Sox staged a three-run rally to wipe out a 3-1 deficit in the sixth, then hit a three-run home run in the seventh that more than answered the three-homer salvo the Yankees laid on Curt Schilling earlier in the evening.

Varitek added his third hit of the night, an eighth-inning single, batting from the right side.

``Awesome," Schilling said after Varitek provided a huge assist to his league-leading ninth win, both at the plate and behind it. ``Jason is a guy who's struggling. He's not a .230 hitter. He never has been. I know he feels it. He might not acknowledge it, he might not show it, but he's working as hard as anybody to get it right."

For much of the week, Varitek could not have been having a more miserable time in the Apple than if he'd been asked to stand in for the Naked Cowboy in the middle of Times Square.

Monday night, facing his all-time nemesis, Mike Mussina (5 for 52 lifetime), Varitek came to bat twice, once with the bases loaded, once with runners on first and second, no outs each time, and grounded into double plays.

Tuesday night, he took an 0 for 4, and got the ball out of the infield once.

Last night, Varitek (3 for 5 with 4 RBIs) came up with the bases loaded in the first inning and tapped back to the pitcher, Jaret Wright, who started an inning-ending double play.

In the fourth, with a runner on first, one out, and Manny Ramírez taking off on the hit and run, Varitek barely avoided grounding into another DP, just beating the relay from Robinson Cano.

At that point, Varitek's line in the series read: 0 for 8, 3 double plays, 2 strikeouts. His average against the Yankees this season: 1 for 26, .038.

But that all changed when he lined an RBI single to left-center off Wright to score Ramírez with the run that cut the Sox' deficit to 3-2, then blasted a three-run home run the next inning against Scott Proctor to break open the game.

``I've just been battling my timing and the way I see the ball," said Varitek, who raised his average to .247, the highest it has been since May 7, when he went into a 6-for-34 spin that had him bottoming out at .228. ``I'm just worried about getting to the place where I know I'm competing, handling the mistakes, handling the pitches I normally handle."

Last night, Schilling spoke about how Varitek, who has been bothered by a strained muscle in his backside for the season's first two months, never lets his offense affect his work behind the plate.

``He knows how important what he does behind the plate is," Schilling said. ``He never talks about an at-bat on the bench. I've always said I love my catchers. I don't care if they go 0 for 4 with four strikeouts. I'd rather they hit three home runs, but I still need that guy back there.

``He works harder than anyone I've ever seen to stay at the top of his game every day, through injuries and a lot of stuff."

Varitek offered a small smile when told what Schilling had said. ``That's what you kind of strive to do when you're in my position," he said. ``That's a big thing that I hold dear in playing this game. I take it as a huge compliment."

Here's an even bigger one.

``I've been around long enough," said first baseman J.T. Snow. ``I like to sit back and watch, to learn about people. You learn more about a person when things are going bad than when things are going good. When things are going good, it's easy to be in a great mood, joking around with your teammates.

``I know that offensively, [Jason] would like to be doing better, but he hasn't changed. He's quiet, but I respect guys like that. The guys who often are running their mouths off the most are really the guys who know the least about what they're talking about.

``It's the guys who say the least who, [when they] do say something, are the guys whose words speak loudest. Jason is a good guy. He's a special player. Good times, bad times, in between. He has the respect of players on this team and around the league. There are guys who go about their business the right way and play the game right. They stand out.

``That's why guys stay with teams for 8, 9, 10 years. That's why he's got the `C' on his shirt."

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