THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

They're getting a little extra from Varitek

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / June 25, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Jason Varitek has had stiffness around his neck for the last 12 days or so and he’s been able to keep it pretty quiet. Red Sox manager Terry Francona’s lips have been sealed until reporters saw Varitek get a rubdown in the dugout Tuesday night.

Francona jokingly said the media was a little slow catching up to the injury, saying it was an old wound Varitek’s been dealing with. According to the captain, he was injured June 12 against the Phillies.

“I don’t know how I did it,’’ Varitek said. “I don’t know if it was from whiplash from a foul ball or what. Honestly, I have no idea. We’ve been treating it and we’re staying on top of it and hope it goes away.’’

In other words, it has not gone away. Varitek had an ice pack virtually everywhere last night - neck, knees, groin, hamstrings. He could barely walk to the locker.

When the Red Sox placed Daisuke Matsuzaka on the disabled list, they brought up catcher Dusty Brown. After a tumultuous offseason in which it appeared Varitek wasn’t coming back to the Sox, he settled for half his 2008 salary ($5 million). They have to be glad he returned.

Varitek’s production offensively has been timely and his leadership behind the plate is a given.

When he re-signed, some thought Varitek would be weaned out of playing time and that the backup would catch more than just Tim Wakefield. That’s happened occasionally, mostly a day game after a night game, but Varitek has caught 53 of the team’s 71 games.

With the Sox leading, 4-1, last night, he hit a very important home run, an upper deck shot to right with David Ortiz aboard off Nationals starter Craig Stammen.

“I hit it pretty good and it came at a good time,’’ Varitek said.

Hitting coach Dave Magadan believes the neck issue bothers Varitek when he’s hitting.

“I think it probably bothers him a little bit more on that left side,’’ he said. “He feels like there’s some pitches where he kind of cuts his swing off a little bit. I think he’s felt better over the past couple days. He got some work on it. But you can see when he’s taking BP, he’s trying to protect. He cuts his swing off if the pitch is coming where he’s got to reach for it.’’

On Varitek’s home run, Magadan said, “Even though he hit it 460 feet or whatever it was, he didn’t try to do too much with it. He put a good swing on it, he got ready. That’s what he’s capable of doing.’’

Sixty percent of Varitek’s hits (26 for 43) have been for extra bases, the second-highest ratio in the majors behind Rays first baseman Carlos Pena, whose at 64 percent. Nine of Varitek’s last 12 hits (six doubles, three homers) have gone for extra bases. For a guy hitting .229, when he hits safely, it usually means something.

“I’ll be honest, it’s been frustrating,’’ Varitek said. “I’ve hit a lot of balls that could have been singles that have been hit right at people. I’ve always had strength so I can drive the ball. I don’t run awful so I can turn some close ones into doubles. It’s not that I’m any stronger or anything like that. I’m hitting some balls hard. I wish more would fall in, but hopefully that evens out.’’

Varitek rarely speaks about himself. Somewhere inside this proud man he must think, “I told you I have something left,’’ although he would never say it. He wanted to show it. He felt he needed to show it. He’s hitting just 9 percentage points better than the average he ended his worst season with, though his 11 home runs in 53 games indicate his power stroke has returned.

“It’s been frustrating because I haven’t always had the results,’’ Varitek said. “I keep grinding away, but I know I can help us defensively. That still holds a bigger priority for me.’’

When you start listing the names of players the Red Sox can’t live without, you have to place Varitek high atop that list. You can argue who’d be the least dispensable - Josh Beckett, Jonathan Papelbon, Jason Bay, Dustin Pedroia or Kevin Youkilis - but we’re talking about a catcher whose familiarity with the pitching staff is off the charts. Could George Kottaras assume that load?

Varitek, even at 37, still has a huge role and his ability to stay healthy appears paramount to the success of the team. He reminds me a lot of Bill Buckner in 1986, a man who did everything he could just to set foot on the baseball field. Buckner would have to soak his ankles in ice water for 90 minutes before the game and 90 minutes after it just to be able to get his feet and ankles working right to play.

As captain and leader of the pitching staff, Varitek obviously feels that same obligation.

And then there are moments like last night, when you realize he can still do some important things at the plate.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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