ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The men in the Red Sox dugout watched the ball sail toward right-center, and they watched their catcher and captain start running to first, and they hoped. The score was tied in the sixth inning, so they needed this run, but it was more than that. Jason Varitek had hit the ball.
Varitek entered the autumn of his career this season with grace, but also swiftly and with a measure of futility. Varitek earned the "C" he wears on his chest throughout his 11 years squatting behind the plate and putting the right finger down. He has earned, through performance, seats on the bench this season during late innings so he can watch someone hit for him.
When the Red Sox needed him most, Varitek erased that duality. The leader was no longer pulled through the American League Series Championship by teammates who could produce at the plate. Varitek's ball did leave the yard, a sixth-inning home run that put the Red Sox ahead for good in the 4-2 victory last night over the Tampa Bay Rays, and momentarily made everyone forget, or at least forgive, his immense struggles with the bat.
"I don't think I could, from our side, think of anything more appropriate," manager Terry Francona said. "I mean, our whole dugout went crazy. We'll take runs any way we can get it, but by that means and by who hit it, it was not just a big run. The way it happened, as hard as he's worked, it meant a lot to everybody."
Varitek returned to a raucous dugout, enthused for their lead and, more so, happy for their catcher. Sean Casey joked that he had predicted the home run in the dugout.
Such forecasting, if Casey was serious, would have been foolish. Varitek was facing a righty, James Shields, and therefore batting lefthanded, the side of the plate where he has most sharply deteriorated. He hit .201 against righthanders this season and hit a home run once every 41 at-bats.
The playoffs had only gotten worse. He was 0 for his last 14 when he came to the plate. He was 3 for 28 in the playoffs, and he had been routinely pinch hit for - the Red Sox carried a third catcher to accommodate late-inning moves for Varitek. He carried a 0.95 slugging percentage in the playoffs into the game against righthanders - 21 at-bats, two singles. His last home run came Sept. 15, a span of 50 at-bats.
None of that mattered to Varitek when he stepped into the box, for two reasons. First, as he has repeated all year, his primary concern is defense.
"I say this all the time, but I can fortunately go 0 for 2,000 and put down the right fingers and get pitchers to do stuff and come away gratified," Varitek said. "You may not have that opportunity in other positions, and I enjoy that."
Second, Varitek felt his bat coming around. Earlier in the game, he had just missed a pitch. He had not given up as a hitter, even as everyone else had started to give up on him.
"You can't always control the results," Varitek said. "I've taken some good swings and fouled off some balls this series that I had no idea how I fouled them off."
Shields started Varitek with two balls, but Varitek still couldn't guess what was coming, couldn't lock in on a fastball - he knew Shields was liable to throw a changeup, a curveball, or a sinker in any count.
But Shields did throw a fastball, and Varitek unleashed his swing. The ball rocketed off, to right-center. Varitek knew it would be close. He sprinted around first and watched the ball drop into the first row of stands. Pandemonium overtook the bench while Varitek circled the bases. David Ortiz later gave the Red Sox an insurance RBI single, but Varitek's home run served as the game-winner, a clutch hit by a batter who seemingly had lost the capacity for them.
"We're a team here," Varitek said. "Everybody has been pulling real hard for each other. That's one of those times where it was a boost. It was a boost for me. It was a boost for everybody."
"It's awesome," Josh Beckett said. "He wears that 'C' on his chest for a lot of different reasons, but none more important than how much respect everybody in that clubhouse has for him. We're always pulling for the guy, but it was huge for him to do that."
Varitek retreated to that clubhouse afterward. A major league baseball representative asked him to come to the podium; he told them to wait, because he needed to ice. Like always, he strapped bags to both knees, his right shoulder, and his left hip, mummifying himself with ice. He never made it to the press conference.
"If you keep going out and playing hard, like 'Tek does every day, you're going to have a good game," Kevin Youkilis said. "He's struggled a little bit this year. But I don't care what he did all year. It doesn't matter. He just hit a home run to help us win a ballgame. In my eyes, he's had a great year."