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Dan Shaughnessy

Varitek continues to catch flak

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / July 8, 2008

The noise gets louder every day.

What are the Sox going to do about Jason Varitek? When does Terry Francona start pinch hitting for him in the late innings of close games? Will the Sox drop him to No. 9 in the order? How can a guy batting .215 get named to the All-Star team? Should he quit switch-hitting? Does Scott Boras really think he's going to secure a four-year contract for a 36-year-old catcher with declining offensive skills? Who'll catch if the Sox don't bring Varitek back next year?

The Sox captain says he doesn't hear the noise. He says he doesn't listen to sports radio (guess he's missing all those great Schill sound bites) and he doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about his Mount Kilimanjaro batting slump or where he'll be playing next season.

He says he's too busy working.

"I do have a focus here, literally, whether I'm hitting or not hitting," he said before going 0 for 3 in last night's thrilling 1-0 win over the Twins. "There's 200 pitches involved in a game that I am involved with. Whatever it is, I'm involved. I have to focus on that. I've got to prepare to get the Twins out."

So he's not dwelling on the lack of production or the idea that the Sox might only offer him a two- year deal?

"I can't afford to," he said. "I have too much to worry about here."

It is an answer consistent with everything Varitek has been since he came to the Red Sox along with Derek Lowe for Heathcliff Slocumb in 1997 (nice work, Dan Duquette). The captain always has been willing to talk about baseball, but he has nothing to offer when it comes to contracts, controversies, or other noisy subjects. Even when he fed Alex Rodriguez a leather sandwich in 2004, Varitek had little to say about the defining moment of the most important season.

This is why you'll never see him launch into a Kevin Youkilis/Jack Nicholson five-star nutty after popping up with the bases loaded. He's not going to burn his Louisville Sluggers to spark a hit streak, and he won't admit he's carrying the weight of twin Bartolo Colons on his shoulders.

It's the work, he says. Varitek is responsible for so much more than the rest of his teammates. He keeps track of a dozen Sox pitchers, and all the lineups they face. He reads scouting reports and looks at video.

He meets with scouts, coaches, and the pitchers. And then he runs the ballgame from behind home plate. Four of every five days.

It is probably the extra work that enables him to keep his sanity through a slump that would have sent some players into retirement. Varitek is 15 for 117 with 39 strikeouts in his last 35 games. If a designated hitter put up those kind of numbers for a couple of months, the Sox would need a padded cell to house him between at-bats. It's different when you have a guy with so many additional responsibilities.

"I get a reprieve, a timeout, before I try to hit again," said the catcher. "Whether I'm hitting or not, I can influence other parts of the game."

But he is not hitting. And the people on the Sox bench die with him - like Little League parents - as he struggles at the plate.

"He got that hit in New York and you see 24 guys and a manager and a couple of trainers rooting for him," said Francona. "It's what he means to us.

"He had a real good at-bat where he fouled off some balls, then he hit a ball that found some grass. Sometimes that can mean just as much. It's a really rough stretch. But because of who he is, he's earned having our trust."

The trust has been challenged by the legion of second-guessers who follow the Red Sox. Francona's loyalty is unconditional. This is a manager who sticks with the people who got him here. And he's willing to go down with them.

Varitek had a particularly poor at-bat Saturday against Mariano Rivera. He came up with the bases loaded and one out with the Sox trailing, 2-1, and popped up a 2-0 pitch.

"I just didn't get there," he said. "I looked at the video and it's the same ball I hit for a home run off him. You get there when you're going well. Or if you hit a fly ball and the run scores, you're a hero. I think I'm closer. I'm in a better spot mechanically and not confusing myself as much."

Is he embarrassed at the notion that he's an All-Star?

"If I was hitting .300, obviously it would be a little easier to take with me," he said. "But what do you do? Ignore the player vote?

"It's a pretty good honor to be sent there by the players. I just had a real bad month."

Will he be with the Red Sox next year?

"We'll see. It can't be decided on now."

Right. Can't think about the slump, the contract, or the noise. There's work to be done.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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