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Varitek may be catching lightning in bottle here

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / May 12, 2010

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“You don’t look like a guy who’s retiring at the end of the season,’’ a reporter said to Jason Varitek.

“I never said I was,’’ Varitek countered.

This rejuvenation at age 38 is almost mind-boggling. OK, there’s a long way to go, and right now Varitek might be the backup catcher, but isn’t he the best catcher the Red Sox have right now?

Varitek doesn’t want to get into who’s better behind the plate. Victor Martinez is his friend. He has high regard for Martinez and feels as strongly about him as any teammate he’s ever had.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino even thinks Varitek kicked the Patriots to the championship. Varitek has heard a lot about Menino’s gaffe over the past couple of days, but as it turns out Varitek kicked an extra point or two between the uprights at his Lake Brantley High in Altamonte Springs, Fla., while filling in for a kicker who was injured.

“Yeah, I used to do some kicking and punting back in high school,’’ Varitek said. “Guys whose name begins with ‘V’ can really kick, huh?’’

Varitek’s bat was on the endangered species list the past two seasons. He had just about hit his way out of the league.

Knowing he came oh-so-close to being out of baseball if he didn’t accept Boston’s offer this winter, Varitek went to work on getting healthy and getting in shape. He worked at his Georgia home with trainer Leslie Eddens, who made him eat healthier and train religiously to improve his core strength.

Last night he socked his sixth homer in his 40th plate appearance, which is 85 appearances sooner than last season. It’s the most homers through 14 games at any time in his career. He’s hit three homers in his last eight games and his 715 RBIs put him one short of Frank Malzone for 14th place on the Red Sox’ all-time list.

“Just trying to contribute in my role and help us win games,’’ Varitek said. “I’m not trying to prove any point or show people they were wrong or whatever. I’m just trying to play the best I can.

“Listen, I still have some issues I’m trying to work through. I’m healthier than I’ve been for a while, and when you feel better, you’re going to play better. But there are things I have physically I have to deal with every day.’’

And the picture backed up his words.

After speaking with reporters, Varitek walked around with an ice pack on virtually every area of his body. In past years, he felt those aches and pains much more than he does now, though he left Saturday’s game against the Yankees with an arm contusion and last night he took a foul square off the mask, which usually results in neck soreness.

He’s also resting more, but as he put it last night, “it’s different. Sometimes what I’m doing now is even more exhausting.’’

Varitek is going over scouting reports before the game, catching side sessions. He’s catching relievers in the bullpen and then trying to get himself ready after the sixth inning in case he has to come in for defense or because they’ve pinch run for Martinez.

Varitek never will spend much time talking about his hitting. He knows his offense always will be a work in progress; he’s never satisfied with it.

After a 2-for-3 night with an intentional walk, Varitek was hitting .342 with six homers and 10 RBIs. He has a .419 OBP and an .888 slugging percentage. Will he settle down at some point? Probably. But right now the Red Sox are riding his pretty hot bat.

“I’ve made some adjustments,’’ Varitek said. “Sometimes by game time it’s not that easy to apply those adjustments. You have to have good pitches to hit. You have to be able to capitalize. I’m a lot healthier than I was, and that’s a good thing.

“Some of it is more exhausting because I have to do more. I’m getting ready for the sixth inning not knowing if I’m going to get in there. You’ve got to work to get loose. I’m still adjusting and trying to figure things out.’’

That Daisuke Matsuzaka pitched a beauty with nine strikeouts and no walks last night “has nothing to do with me,’’ Varitek said. “It has more to do with he’s in his third start. I’m Victor’s backup and he’s gonna have good and bad starts with both of us.

“[Matsuzaka] was strong through the zone from pitch one. This was huge for our bullpen because we haven’t been able to rest it a lot. His fastball was real good. He had late life on it. He had his misfires, but he set up his breaking ball for later in the game. I think he’s still getting his feel.

“Any time you can get through seven innings and not allow a walk, that’s pretty good.’’

Varitek said Matsuzaka is a huge part of the Sox rotation and last night’s start was a great kickoff for what might be a successful campaign after last season’s lost one. He says the Japanese righty is still throwing an assortment of pitches, which includes a two-seam and four-seam fastball, cutter, slider, and changeup. Matsuzaka has ditched his usual curveball for the slider.

Varitek won’t take credit for Matsuzaka finding himself, but it appears he and the catcher had the right game plan for the free-swinging Blue Jays.

The Red Sox seem content to limit Varitek’s playing time in hopes the rest will improve his bottom line. Varitek’s instincts are to play a lot more than he has, but there have been no complaints from the captain over his limited time.

No, he’s never said he’s retiring. And the way things are going, you’re not going to hear the “R’’ word any time soon.

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

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