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Red Sox Notebook

Varitek all the rage after time in the cage

Jason Varitek wasn't happy about striking out, but he's had good moments at the plate lately. Jason Varitek wasn't happy about striking out, but he's had good moments at the plate lately. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / May 24, 2009
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With the physical demands of catching a full season in the major leagues, including day games after night games, and the time constraints of managing a pitching staff, something had to give. So sometimes - too often, in the eyes of hitting coach Dave Magadan - Jason Varitek would skip his time in the batting cage before a game.

While Magadan wouldn't divulge how often that was, he did say, "It was enough." Enough that after it happened a couple of times early this season, Magadan had a conversation with Varitek about how crucial that time was, how much it could help him reactivate a batting stroke that fell apart last season.

"It was enough that I think it affects your year," Magadan said. "It's hard to keep anything going when you're taking a couple days off in a row of not swinging at all. You turn an 0 for 4 into an 0 for 12. If we could kind of cut that off at the pass and turn an 0 for 4 into a 2 for 8 or 3 for 10, that's what makes you instead of hitting .220, you hit .250 or .260."

There has been a marked improvement in Varitek's offense (he is hitting .248 after going 1 for 3 in last night's loss to the Mets). But you won't hear it from him. He has offered a polite "no thanks" when asked about his increased time in the cage.

"He took a couple days off early, that's when I spoke to him about it," Magadan said. "I mentioned to him that I know it's hard, but he's got to find a way to go in that cage and take some swings, even if it's 10 swings, at least get ready for the game.

"To his credit, he jumped right on it, said, 'You know what, you're right.' Because there are a lot of times he wouldn't do anything, day game after a night game.

"I think he prides himself on what he does behind the plate and he wants to . . . at least make that a priority. I just wanted to convey to him that that is a priority, but we've got to make sure that you stay on top of your hitting, too.

"He was receptive to it. To his credit, he's done that."

Along with simplifying his lefthanded swing, the added time in the cage before games has helped Varitek get off to the best home run pace of his career. He has eight long balls, and a .521 slugging percentage. Over 13 seasons, Varitek has slugged .441, with a career high of 25 homers in 2003. He is 7 for his last 19, including four homers in six games.

"There's no reason he can't do it," Magadan said of Varitek hitting for power. "He's as strong as anybody in the game."

Lugo out, Green in
Julio Lugo was on the bench, one night after his flat-footed throw on a potential double play ball possibly cost the Sox a win. Manager Terry Francona inserted Nick Green at shortstop, though it wasn't expected to be much of a defensive upgrade. Green came in with eight errors in 23 games at short this season.

"When we brought Lugie back, we didn't want him to play a ton in a row," Francona said. "We've got a day game tomorrow, so one was going to play one or the other, anyway."

Francona said he had a chance to watch the potential double play on replay.

"He wants me to have his back, which I think I'm supposed to, I completely understand," Francona said of Lugo. "At the same time, if I feel like I have something to say to somebody, I've got to say it.

"We've probably gone back and forth where he's not real comfortable. You're always trying to help and you walk a fine line where you're helping, not hindering. I think we all thought that we should have had a better shot to turn that."

Despite his occasional problem defensively, Green has had his moments of excellence, too, and a play he made last night was more wow than whoa, as he raced into short left field to track down a pop fly from Daniel Murphy. Green caught it, then went skidding across the grass, under the jump of left fielder Jason Bay, to end the inning.

"I thought it was hit harder than it was," Green said. "That's why I ended up catching it. I overran it. Those balls, when they take swings like that, it's hard to tell how the ball is going to carry. You just try to catch it."

Rest on the horizon
Mike Lowell, who has played every game save the second of a doubleheader against the Twins April 22, is likely to sit out one of the games in Minnesota this week, given the artificial surface in the Metrodome. "It's actually unbelievable, in my opinion," Francona said of how many games Lowell has been able to play coming back from hip surgery. "Because of it sometimes I think guys sometimes rack up an 0-fer because of their willingness to play. Maybe at the end there, you look at the stats and maybe his batting average is a couple points lower, but I think the staff appreciates it because we know what he can bring." . . . Jacoby Ellsbury extended his hitting streak in his first at-bat for the second straight night, singling to right field to up the streak to a career-high 18 games . . . Mark Kotsay played six innings in center field for Triple A Pawtucket last night, going 1 for 3. He will take today off, before traveling with the PawSox to Louisville . . . Josh Beckett nearly did himself bodily harm in the first, and perhaps erased a chance to get out of the inning unscathed. On a foul popup by Gary Sheffield, Beckett got in Lowell's way, as the third baseman appeared in position to make the play. "I felt like I could have caught it, but Mike Lowell overrules me," Beckett said. "I think it was just one of those deals where as soon as he called it, he saw me and at this point in the season it's probably better not to have a big collision between me and Mike Lowell. I was going after it. I feel like I could have caught it, and it's nobody's fault. Things like that happen." . . . Since David Ortiz went 2 for 5 Wednesday, including his first homer of the season, he has just one hit in three games. And in the last two games, has five strikeouts in seven at-bats. "I think we were all hoping he'd get real hot," Francona said. "When you swing the bat and then you come in and face Johan Santana, sometimes it doesn't matter how you're swinging. It's been a struggle."

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