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Varitek speaks softly, swings a big stick

Doubts answered with lefty homer

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By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / April 8, 2009
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Jason Varitek would be happy to talk about many things, most notably his pitching staff. He is not, however, particularly interested in discussing his offense.

"My focus has to be this pitching staff with this team," Varitek said. "I'm not hitting fourth or third in this lineup, so there's a big difference. I still have three-quarters of my job to do, and that's only a quarter of it."

But as dire as the predictions have been about his demise at the plate - coming off that .220 year with a .201 average from the left side - Varitek perhaps flipped those expectations yesterday. The odds on him being the player to chase James Shields from yesterday's game may have been long, but that's just what he did in the sixth inning, taking a 90-mile-per-hour fastball out to right field, the ball catching the slightest bit of fair territory inside the foul pole.

Varitek spent all spring working with hitting coach Dave Magadan on simplifying his lefthanded swing. And though he batted just .216 in spring training, he hit five lefty home runs.

Now comes the home run in his 10th Opening Day start at catcher, the most in Sox history.

"I feel as good about Jason this year as I've felt about anybody that I've had," Magadan said. "The key is to keep patient. I have to stay patient with him. He certainly has to stay patient with himself, on the left side especially. Don't get caught up in the numbers, just believe in the process and what he's doing. It's going to get him to where he wants to be. I think at the end of the year, it's going to happen."

Though there was a prediction from David Ortiz that "he's going to have a good season," and support throughout the clubhouse for one of the Sox' longest-tenured members, there is much work to be done before Varitek's revamped swing can be deemed a success. Sure, the home run was a start, but there are 161 more games, and 400 or so more at-bats.

Even before the game, Magadan said, "From where he was last year, as down in the dumps as he was personally with the way he swung and how frustrated he was with himself, and to see the hard work that he did this offseason and to see the hard work that he did in spring training, it's nice to see it pay off a little bit.

"It was a testament to his pride and his fortitude that he stayed with it."

Grandstand play
Instead of having the players come out of the dugouts for introductions, the Sox came out of the stands for yesterday's opener. It was certainly an up-close-and-personal meeting with fans, even with heavy security.

But there were mixed reviews for the new wrinkle, which the players didn't know was coming until just a few days ago.

"I felt kind of like a caged animal there for a little while," J.D. Drew said. "We were stuck in a little bitty corridor, a little barricade, surrounded by a bunch of screaming, yelling Red Sox fans. I kind of felt like a gorilla at the zoo."

Justin Masterson, meanwhile, was doing his best to protect his pitching arm.

"Kept it flexed, kept it close, just in case someone was trying to pull it," he said. "Walking down the steps was a little bit closer than I thought. I was trying not to stumble down the stairs."

Senator pitches in
After being driven in from left field by Jim Rice in a golf cart, Senator Edward M. Kennedy threw out the first pitch. While Kennedy stood and pretended to look in at the catcher, Rice stood about 5 feet from him. His first throw landed in front of Rice's feet, and Kennedy gamely tried again . . . The flyover during "The Star-Spangled Banner" was just a touch late . . . Mike Lowell's double in the third inning gave him a hit in all 10 of the Opening Day games in which he's played. Lowell was slotted at No. 7 in the order, where he'll likely hit for a while as Terry Francona goes for the left-right-left-right combination of Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis, Drew, and Jason Bay. "I certainly don't think Mike Lowell is a 7 hitter," Francona said. "But coming back from the surgery, it's the best way to get the most out of him. You get all the good, and if the one thing he's lacking right now is a little bit of speed. If that's the last thing to come, hitting him a little low in the order maybe lessens - if something's wrong, he's further down in the order. And it stretches out our batting order."

Slow start
Every player in the Sox lineup had a hit except Jacoby Ellsbury. The leadoff hitter had a bad day, going 0 for 4 with a strikeout looking and three weak ground outs . . . Tampa Bay's Carlos Pena had an even worse day, with four strikeouts in four at-bats . . . During the postgame press conference, Francona wore a Marine Corps T-shirt in honor of his son, Nick . . . With lefthander Scott Kazmir starting for the Rays tonight, Rocco Baldelli might get a shot at his first start with the Sox.

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