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Mirabelli earns payback at plate

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / July 18, 2006
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For so long, Doug Mirabelli's fortunes have been attached to those of Tim Wakefield, the catcher putting on his gear and grabbing the big mitt any time the knuckleballer's spot in the rotation came up. Mirabelli's job, after being reacquired from the Padres May 1, was to catch the tricky pitch without incident.

But last night against the Royals, after Wakefield left the game after four innings suffering from an upper back strain, which may lead to a stint on the 15-day disabled list, Mirabelli made a statement on his own.

He may have plate umpire Jim Joyce to thank for calling a strike on a 3-1 pitch that Mirabelli was convinced was low. He started jogging down to first base, turning back when he heard Joyce scream out the surprising strike two call.

Good thing. For the backup catcher, hitting .182 entering last night's game and probably wondering if Jason Varitek was going to hit for him with two on and one out, hung in, got an elevated fastball from Joel Peralta, and lofted it into the Monster seats. His homer tied the game at 4-4 in the seventh inning, and the Sox eventually claimed a 5-4 win over Kansas City on Manny Ramírez's sacrifice fly in the eighth.

``[Strike two] was a close pitch; I started to walk down to first thinking it was ball four," said Mirabelli.

``I took a second to regroup. In that situation, it was just, get a good pitch and swing at a strike. I had no idea what he was going to throw there in that count. It could have been a splitter, which he had thrown earlier in the count, or a slider, so I just sold out on the fastball and was fortunate."

``Once Dougie hits the home run, it changes the whole complexion of the game," said Sox manager Terry Francona.

The scoreboard had looked ominous up to that inning. The Yankees were beating the Mariners, 4-2, in spite of three strikeouts and three errors by Alex Rodriguez. The suddenly relevant Blue Jays were thrashing the Rangers, 10-1. The Sox were losing, and ever so close to falling out of first place in the American League East.

One could picture Channel 4's Bob Lobel readying that big red panic button on the WBZ sports set after another lackluster night of baseball until Mirabelli's blast.

Losing to Kansas City at home in the first game of a series would have been a monumental downer. Everyone wants to play the Royals -- until you have to play them. Kansas City has some nice young players, and some veterans who will fit nicely on contending teams sometime around the trading deadline.

At this point, many of the Royals are trying to put on a show for the many scouts who were watching the game.

The Yankees, in fact, planned to take a look at veteran postseason contributor Reggie Sanders, but he was a late scratch because of a sore groin.

It's vitally important the Red Sox beat second-tier teams like the Royals at home because there are too many good teams like the Oakland A's, who beat the Sox three out of four recently, and who took advantage of Boston's current pitching woes.

Wakefield's back problem could be costly. The knuckleballer has been asked to eat up innings the past several outings and save the bullpen, and it didn't always happen. Now his back has caused him to leave a game.

A three-team race was predictable when the Blue Jays started spending money and adding big-time players. They survived almost two months without A.J. Burnett. The Yankees have survived major injuries to Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield, two of the most clutch hitters in baseball.

Who would have thought that on July 18, Curt Schilling would be the only reliable Red Sox starter? Or that Josh Beckett would be throwing meatballs so often? Or that Wakefield would be injured? Or that David Wells and Matt Clement would be on the disabled list?

Big payroll teams are built to sustain injuries. But two weeks before the trading deadline, it could be time for general manager Theo Epstein to begin serious talks toward acquiring another starting pitcher (if he hasn't already done so).

As of yesterday, the Marlins and Braves were still not inclined to give up Dontrelle Willis or John Smoltz, respectively. The Giants are not so out of it that Jason Schmidt would be available.

A pitcher of lesser quality, Philadelphia's Jon Lieber, who is coming off the disabled list, might be available as part of the Phillies' inevitable fire sale. The Royals' sole All-Star, lefthander Mark Redman, might also be an option.

Francona called out to the bullpen after Wakefield's quick exit and told everyone to be ready and that they were going to win the game.

The Sox did win, in a gut-check game. And sometimes you need a lift from an unexpected player. That was Mirabelli.

One scout said, ``I wondered why [Francona] didn't have Varitek pinch hit, but I guess he knows his team better than we do."

Francona indicated he gave no thought to pinch hitting Varitek, wanting to give him a day off. The Sox believe Varitek might be shouldering too much of the load. If Wakefield is out, Mirabelli may be getting a bigger workload with the rest of the rotation.

``When I can add to the offense, it's nice, and it takes a little pressure off the big guys," said Mirabelli, who two years ago hit some key home runs, but has largely lost the stroke since.

``The one positive thing I can usually take home at the end of the night is that this game is built on failure a lot; you have to find something to keep your chin up about. If Wake, or whomever else, goes out there and I'm catching him and we win that game, it's at least a little pressure off me that with my lack of hitting in the past, [it] hasn't hurt the team."

Mirabelli said the home run was the result of a lot of extra hitting he's done the last two months.

``We've worked hard on my hitting," he said. ``It's something that's never come very easy to me. It's always been a battle for me. To be able to contribute and see some progress, it's something I feel good about.

``When you put in that much hard work, you like to see some significant payback," added Mirabelli, who helped win a game -- without his baseball partner.

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