Varitek strikes a blow for perseverance
FORT MYERS, Fla. - When Jason Varitek stands in the cage, and tries to integrate the tapping of his foot and the swinging of his bat and the dancing of his feet, he understands the changes that are being made. He knows simplicity is good, that something has to give, that no one - least of all himself - was overly pleased with last season's .220 batting average, or this spring's .091.
It's just in the games that he's had to rely on the importance of line-drive outs, of hard-hit balls, of peeks at a better result without actual better results.
So he is working on it, working on the simplification of his lefthanded swing, working on a slight alteration of his righthanded swing, trying to use the information given to him by hitting coach Dave Magadan to find solutions in the batter's box.
But as much as he can tell himself and Magadan can tell him that spring training statistics don't matter, there is something disheartening about having just two hits in eight exhibition games.
"I think he's had some pretty good at-bats lefthanded, just he doesn't have anything to show for it," Magadan said before yesterday's 9-5 win over the Twins at City of Palms Park. "As a hitting coach, it's frustrating, because you know he's on the right track. You'd like for him to get results and get some balls to fall in.
"I just hope he stays patient with it. I see a world of difference. It may not look like that to people in the stands or [the media], but he's in a position right now, especially lefthanded, where he gives himself [the chance] to put a good swing on the ball more consistently."
That came yesterday. Though he headed into the game with just those two hits (one a double) in 22 spring training at-bats (admittedly a small sample size), Varitek doubled his output in three at-bats. On an inside fastball, in his first at-bat against Scott Baker, Varitek lifted a home run to right field from the left side. He "dropped the head [of the bat], real direct approach," manager Terry Francona said. The catcher added a line single in the third inning for a 2-for-3 day.
His average soared to .160, as Varitek finally got some answers out of all the working and all the tweaking and all the taps and hand movements and jitters removed from his lefthanded swing.
And while Varitek professes a lack of concern, it is always difficult to avoid the statistics, difficult to get a 2-for-22 or even a 4-for-25 out of one's head. He said yesterday morning, "Can't let the results change the process right now. I think what we're changing is going to benefit in the long run, maybe not in the short run."
"It doesn't matter how long you've played, you still want results, especially coming off the year he had last year," Magadan said. "He doesn't have earmuffs on. He knows what's being said about him, and he wants obviously to prove everybody wrong, which I think he will. He just needs to be patient with it."
So perhaps the changes are working. Or perhaps yesterday was just a tease.
"I have at different times made things complex, which at times makes things simple to me," Varitek said. "You have triggers and timing mechanisms and those things; well, we've changed my timing mechanism. We're still trying to figure this out, what's what and how it's all going to work together so I'm able to do it much better.
"My plate coverage is much better in BP and [I have] the ability to drive the ball to different parts of the field and use some of my strength, which is one of my better assets.
"Foundationally, my legs are underneath me a lot more now than they have [been]. I have a tendency to run in and out of the box, to be literal. We've just got to get it all to work together now."
That will take time and work and effort. As Varitek acknowledged, "I've done certain things for a long time. Hopefully, the changes that we're making, if I can get there, will allow me to be more consistent. We're not there yet."
As Varitek works through his issues on the left side, he also started with a change from the right yesterday. He added a tap, something that doesn't concern Magadan. Varitek is naturally a righthanded hitter, and hit .284 from that side in 2008.
"He feels more athletic righthanded," said Magadan, "so he's able to do things like that where it just makes him feel like he has a little more rhythm. He's more comfortable in his skin righthanded."
He needs to be comfortable lefthanded, too - at least show some improvement, some results. But no matter what, even with the average he had last season, there is some comfort in everything he can do for the Red Sox behind the plate.
"It's not an excuse, but regardless, I know my importance is there," Varitek said, pointing to the bag that held his catching equipment. "I just know what that is.
"For me, I didn't have that great of an offensive year [in 2008]. You know what, we were in Game 7. So there's something I did good. This game teaches you what you can't do. You've got to pick out what you can do."
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com.