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Out at the plate? Not so fast on Varitek

Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek gets a hug from Victor Martinez after he was replaced in the ninth inning yesterday. Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek gets a hug from Victor Martinez after he was replaced in the ninth inning yesterday. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Nick Cafardo
October 4, 2010

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When Kevin Cash trotted out of the dugout in full catcher’s gear to replace Jason Varitek before the bottom of the ninth inning yesterday, the crowd gave Varitek a standing ovation, in case that was it for the beloved captain.

The questions by some of the media to Varitek after the game seemed to imply he had played his last game in Boston for the Red Sox. Varitek had his daughters on hand, and his father, who battled for his life in an Orlando-area hospital in the spring. There were signs that even Varitek had no idea whether yesterday was his last game with the Sox.

But not so fast.

There’s a good chance Varitek may be in Boston’s plans. There’s evidence that the organization believes Varitek is still its best defensive catcher, the best handler of pitchers, and an invaluable piece of the team. There’s evidence, too, to suggest Victor Martinez may not stay here after the team offered him a contract for two years (and may be willing to go to three), but not the four or five years Martinez is seeking and could get in free agency.

There’s a feeling in the organization of some that if Martinez departs, the team could commit to Jarrod Saltalamacchia as the starting catcher and have Varitek mentor him.

The Sox could opt for a free agent such as John Buck, who had a very good year offensively for the Blue Jays. But if they did that they may not be able to tap the potential of Saltalamacchia, who in a short period impressed the team with his enthusiasm and his potential to wield a powerful bat. Unfortunately for Saltalamacchia, he suffered a thumb injury while in Oklahoma City that he kept to himself until finally revealing it to the Sox when it began affecting his swing.

The work done by Varitek and Saltalamacchia (and Martinez, for that matter) with bullpen coach Gary Tuck is impressive, and there seems to be some enthusiasm for keeping that combination together and seeing where it goes. The Sox didn’t have a catcher ready to be a full-season major league starter, which is why they traded for Saltalamacchia, who wanted out of Texas when he was sent down to Oklahoma City to work on his yips on throwing the ball back to the mound, among other things.

The Rangers never brought him back up, then dealt for Bengie Molina, finally deciding to cut ties with Salty. And so he was paired with Varitek, the player at the position Saltalamacchia admired for so long.

So why would a team necessarily break that up?

Varitek reiterated yesterday how much he wants to finish his career in Boston, but he won’t retire if the Sox don’t bring him back. He will go to another organization, and there appear to be teams (Florida? Atlanta?) willing to bring him in if he and the Sox part company.

Both general manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona spoke glowingly about Varitek after Boston’s 8-4 win over the Yankees. Francona said he never respected Varitek any more than for how he dealt with his broken foot and still executed the duties of being the captain. Varitek was a cheerleader, instructor, mentor, and even with his foot in a boot, he was out there before games working on drills with Martinez, Saltalamacchia, and Cash.

Among the reasons Varitek doesn’t want to hang them up is that he’s excited about his health and about what he’s learned under Tuck, even at 38. For years Varitek was a walking postgame mummy, with ice packs on his balky neck, knees, and back, and that limited his effectiveness, especially at the plate. He feels he’s rediscovered his lefthanded stroke, and worries that now that he has it back, he may not be able to show it off. He sent a ball to the warning track in the eighth inning yesterday that in the summer likely would have been out of the park.

Varitek knew what yesterday might mean, which is why he was soaking in the environment — the ballpark, the fans, his family, his teammates.

“It was great to see,’’ Epstein said. “I don’t think anyone deserves that kind of reception from the fans more than he does. No matter what happens, he’s a Red Sox. More than any one of us, he’s a Red Sox.

“The future’s uncertain. The warmth the fans showed and his teammates showed and everyone else showed may have seemed like a goodbye, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. I think there’s uncertainty with our catching situation, and we’ll see how things turn out.’’

If it was definitely goodbye, the Sox would have had a day for him like they did for Mike Lowell.

“I guess I was just a little . . . emotional is the best way to say it,’’ Varitek said.

He said Francona never told him he would take him out so the crowd could cheer him.

“I saw Cash down there and I said, ‘Oh, well,’ and then I just dismissed it and focused on what I had to do,’’ said Varitek. “I mean, it was an important game for baseball today because obviously it’s a chance for us to win another game, but [the Yankees] were going for first place. So it wasn’t a relaxed kind of spring training-type game. It had a lot of importance.’’

He kept doing the little things.

“[Saturday night], I was warming up the last guy in the bullpen at 1:20 a.m.,’’ he said. “I’m pretty much the last guy left.’’

With any aging ballplayer, management has to make tough decisions about when it’s time to say goodbye. It doesn’t seem as if the Red Sox have reached that place yet with Varitek. And it’s apparent to them that Varitek’s prolonged absence because of the foot injury probably had something to do with the pitching staff underperforming.

“It’s obvious how special this place has been to me,’’ Varitek said. “I’ve been fortunate to have been in one place my whole career. It goes back to the fan base, respect for my teammates. It’s emotional. I feel like I can do some things still, just have to see.

“You’re not always in control of things in the future, so I have to be patient. Like today, I don’t think I could have blocked a ball any better. Physically moving, and how well I can do it, are the warning signs for me. There are a lot of things that have to be decided here, not just one or two.’’

If it was the end, Varitek said the ovation from the fans “caught me off guard.’’ But he took it all in, with his family on hand.

But one gets the feeling we haven’t seen the end of the captain in a Red Sox uniform.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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