CLEVELAND - Before last night's game, as manager Terry Francona sat in his office in the visitors' clubhouse, he lamented the fact that he needs to stay away from using Jason Varitek on days when the catcher isn't in the starting lineup. On 36-year-old knees, Varitek needs a break every now and then, and the only guarantees he gets are on nights when Tim Wakefield pitches.
So it was with a bit of trepidation that Francona called upon Varitek to pinch hit for Kevin Cash in the top of the ninth inning. But he was surely glad he did. One night after Manny Ramírez took Cleveland closer Joe Borowski deep to break a tie in the ninth inning, Varitek hit a solo home run to left field off Jensen Lewis, snapping another tie and pushing the Sox to their fourth straight victory, 5-3, in front of 25,135 at Progressive Field.
"I worry about him, but in a game like that, I mean, that one swing obviously changed the game," Francona said. "He ran down to the bullpen after we told him he was going to hit second, he warmed up the pitcher [winner David Aardsma] so he could get in the flow of the game, swung the bat, and then put a beautiful swing.
"I don't think people quite realize - we can't have him catch 162. Yeah, I do struggle with that. But it doesn't look like Tek is."
No, Varitek didn't struggle with the at-bat, sending a sinker into the seats in left to break a 3-3 tie. Nor did Jed Lowrie struggle, as he made his major league debut, starting at third base and getting his first hit and first three RBIs.
While Wakefield got himself in and out of a few jams, walking four batters and allowing seven hits and two runs over six innings, Lowrie came through in the fifth inning, putting the Red Sox up, 1-0, when he grounded toward shortstop, then beat the relay to first to avoid a double play as Jacoby Ellsbury scored.
Then came Lowrie's moment. The moment that likely made his parents hold their breath, as they got ready to hop on a plane and join him in New York for his 24th birthday tomorrow.
He stepped to the plate in the seventh with the bases loaded, Kevin Youkilis and Ellsbury aboard on walks and Julio Lugo on a bunt single. And he sneaked a single through the left side of the infield, enough to score Youkilis and Ellsbury and get that first major league hit, the one that left him holding two baseballs after the game - a joke version and the real thing.
"I can't even describe it," said Lowrie, who spent his pregame reading Time magazine in front of his locker. "It's one of those moments in your life that you're always going to remember. Big relief, more than anything else. Get out there, get the first one, and just kind of let the rest happen from there."
Though he hadn't yet had a chance to check his cellphone for messages - "I'm kind of scared to," he said - Lowrie was bound to find a few well wishes on there.
But that lead, 3-2, didn't hold up. After Javier Lopez got the first two outs in the bottom of the seventh, he hit Travis Hafner and gave up a single to Victor Martinez. Manny Delcarmen came into the game, and promptly walked Jhonny Peralta and hit Ryan Garko on the elbow, the ball bouncing straight up in the air. That scored Hafner with the tying run, before Delcarmen got Asdrubal Cabrera to ground into a fielder's choice.
That left the score tied for Varitek. And, even though he's had a few hits in his career, Varitek might have found a nice message or two on his phone after the game as well, coming through as he did.
It was the Sox' first pinch-hit home run since Doug Mirabelli hit one Oct. 2, 2005, against the Yankees, and the third pinch-hit homer of Varitek's career, his first since 2003.
The Red Sox added an insurance run when Coco Crisp singled, Dustin Pedroia doubled, and Youkilis singled (after Manny Ramírez was intentionally walked).
That gave a bit of cushion to a bullpen without many bullets left.
With Jonathan Papelbon sidelined for the evening, and the bullpen wearing thin, the Red Sox had just enough to get the game to Hideki Okajima.
"There was a number of guys we needed to stay away from," Francona said. "We were at about the last guy. We would have come up with something, but it wasn't something we wanted to do."
Varitek managed to take care of that. On a 1-and-2 pitch, with just one swing.
"I've had my fair share of appearances, of pinch hitting in my career," Varitek said. "But I haven't been able to do that very often."