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Martinez gets caught up in spirit of the moment

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / August 2, 2009

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BALTIMORE - Professor Terry Francona presided over his Advanced Lineup Management system last night. At the center of it was none other than newcomer Victor Martinez.

He began his Red Sox career by playing first base, where he made a nice play, and batting third, going 1 for 5 with an RBI and a run in a 4-0 win.

But Martinez won’t always be wearing a first baseman’s mitt. Today, in fact, he will make his Sox catching debut with Clay Buchholz on the mound.

With that will come a new lineup. Each day there will be new issues for Francona, such as who sits and when and for how long with this roster heavy with first basemen. Every day we will wonder, where’s Victor?

But first things first. Martinez had to shake the jitters out of his body in Day 1 as a member of the Red Sox after spending his entire career with the Indians.

Martinez said he won’t feel nervous catching. Not nearly as nervous as he felt putting on a Sox uniform for the first time.

“It wasn’t a normal game for me,’’ said Martinez. “At the beginning I felt like I was making my major league debut. I was kind of nervous, but as the game went on, I got more comfortable. It felt really nice my first at-bat, the fans cheering for me. It felt great.’’

Martinez looked beat after the game. He sat in his chair with his full uniform on watching the end of a 4-3 extra-inning loss by the his old team to Detroit. He got a glimpse of what it is going to be like in Red Sox Nation, where even a road game is almost a home game, with fans cheering the opposing team. What?

“I have no words to explain that,’’ Martinez said. “It felt great.’’

In the first, following Dustin Pedroia’s homer, Martinez struck out swinging. In the third, he grounded to second. In the fifth, he popped to short. He finally did something in the sixth, knocking home Jacoby Ellsbury with a single to left.

“It felt good to get that first hit. I’m glad I got that out of the way,’’ he said.

Martinez is off and running in his multitask role. He will likely play all the time - a little first, a little catcher, a little DH - but that means someone has to sit. The Sox hope this falls under the category of a “good problem to have.’’

Third baseman Mike Lowell, who sat last night, is likely going to see diminished playing time. One American League general manager said that for Jason Varitek the acquisition of Martinez “could be the beginning of the end. I would think they’d wean him down to three or four games a week.’’

The Sox settled one issue by placing George Kottaras on the disabled list with a sore lower back (wink, wink). The guess here is they’ll bring him back when the rosters expand in September so he’ll continue to catch Tim Wakefield.

For Boston to maximize its offense, Martinez would be catching, which would mean Lowell, David Ortiz, and Kevin Youkilis all play.

The Indians always thought Martinez wore down when he caught too much, though his career stats as a catcher don’t seem to bear it - .295 as a catcher in 425 at-bats, which is .002 lower than his career average.

Martinez has been attacked at times for his skills behind the plate, but, as Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin, pointed out, “He’s caught Cy Young winners [CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee] the last two years. That’s got to be due to something he’s doing.’’

In terms of calling a game, Melvin said, “He’s a .300 hitter, so when he’s behind the plate he’s probably thinking like a hitter would. I think he’s probably pretty good at it.’’

It remains to be seen how tough it is to get used to new pitchers, although Varitek said, “I’ll do whatever I can to help him with the staff. But Victor is a hard-working player. I’m sure he’ll get this on his own.’’

Although Varitek wants to play a lot, even though his body is banged up, the Red Sox feel the rest will benefit him. Certainly, egos will have to be set aside, but if it does work, there’s no reason the Martinez-Varitek tandem couldn’t exist through next year.

“I always look up to Jason. He’s one of the best catchers in the game,’’ Martinez said. “I really look forward to talking to him a lot, just to be beside him and learn . . . But I have to get in there and catch some bullpens and get to know everybody as quickly as I can. I’m just going to have to go out there and work with them and hope things come quickly to me.’’

Martinez has not committed an error in 52 games at catcher this season, with three passed balls. His arm strength is considered below average, and he has thrown out only seven of 46 attempted base stealers. His catcher ERA is a lofty 5.84, but that was a result of catching a less than top-notch staff in Cleveland.

Martinez, who got a locker next to Ortiz in the Camden Yards clubhouse, said he was “honored to wear the Red Sox uniform.’’ He was also looking forward to playing in Boston and “playing in front of the fans there. Those fans are great. Now I’ll have them on my side.’’

Martinez said he has made no demands on where he’ll play or how much he’ll catch. He said neither of those things matter. He’s accepted playing first as a way to rest his body, although he loves to catch and would do it full time if the Sox wanted him to do so in the future.

“That’s my position,’’ said Martinez. “When you catch, you get into a rhythm, but I understand why I don’t catch all the time and it’s much better for me. The great thing for me is to be healthy. If I’m healthy I’ll be able to hit the baseball.’’

He will hit and he will play a lot. But where?

We will have to follow Professor Francona’s Advanced Lineup Management system closely to find out.

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

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