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Varitek’s battery recharged

JASON VARITEK JASON VARITEK
By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / March 26, 2011

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — It can be an awkward transition for an accomplished player to take on a secondary role. But Red Sox captain Jason Varitek appeared to handle it gracefully last season, uttering no public protest when his playing time was sharply reduced.

Varitek did all he could to help Victor Martinez manage the pitching staff, and produced when called upon. Unlike Mike Lowell and Tim Wakefield, who wrestled with their new, lesser roles, it appeared seamless for Varitek.

“Sometimes as guys get older, it’s difficult. With Tek it has been a blessing,’’ manager Terry Francona said yesterday. “He’s taken that ‘C’ on his shirt and lived up to every bit of it. He’s a huge leader for us.’’

But do not confuse willingness with acceptance. Varitek still has not given up on the idea that his time as a starting player has come to an end.

“Everybody said I did fine, but there was good and bad,’’ he said. “I’m still learning how to deal with all this.’’

With Martinez leaving the Sox via free agency, Varitek is now the backup and mentor of 25-year-old Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Unlike Martinez, a three-time All-Star before he arrived in Boston, Saltalamacchia is unproven. The Sox have given him the starting job based more on potential.

Varitek arrived in camp in remarkable condition, prepared to play as often as needed. The plan is for Saltalamacchia to do the bulk of the catching, with Varitek playing primarily against lefthanded pitchers.

“Nobody has told me how it’s going to work,’’ Varitek said. “Whatever dynamic ends up playing out, we’ll see. But I’m ready for whatever. It’s been a process of getting myself to where I’m at right now.’’

Varitek, who turns 39 next month, is entering his 14th season with the Red Sox. He has played 1,478 games, ninth in club history, and is in the career top 20 for runs, hits, doubles, home runs, walks, extra-base hits, and total bases.

Varitek has caught 430 more games than Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk did for the Red Sox.

“He’s a proud guy,’’ righthander Josh Beckett said. “He doesn’t just accept things. I think part of what made him so good last year backing up Vic was that he prepared like he was the starter. That never changed.’’

Varitek hit .232 last season, but had a .593 slugging percentage against lefthanded pitching. What appeared to be an unexpectedly productive season was cut short June 30 when a foul ball off the bat of Carl Crawford fractured Varitek’s right foot.

“Last year he was on pace to have an unbelievable year statistically until he had the broken bone,’’ Francona said.

Varitek returned from the disabled list Sept. 6 and played only five more games.

“I almost feel like I didn’t miss too much,’’ Varitek said. “I was around the team the whole time.’’

Part of the reason the Sox were comfortable with Saltalamacchia taking over was the presence of Varitek.

“I think that makes all the difference,’’ righthander Clay Buchholz said. “Salty is trying to learn everybody, all the little things, and Tek knows all that stuff. He’s been around this club for a long time and around this group of guys for a long time.’’

Varitek made it a point to join Martinez for his pregame meeting with the starting pitcher, a practice he plans to continue with Saltalamacchia.

“It’s not unusual for him to do something like that. He’s a part of everything that goes on with this team. He’s at a core of everything we do,’’ Buchholz said. “He studies more than anybody on the team does.’’

Varitek said earlier in spring training he hopes to keep playing several more years. When his career is over, like so many other catchers, might Varitek coach or manager?

It’s a question he claims never to have considered.

“[Playing] takes enough of my concentration, focus, and training,’’ he said. “I think I’m cheating myself if I start thinking about what I’m going to do next. I’ve kind of had that philosophy. I put everything I have into what I’m doing right now. That answer, I do not know.’’

He does acknowledge that it’s hard to picture a life outside of baseball.

“There’s a lot to like, you know?’’ he said. “It’s been my whole life, I do know that.

“For now, I have to focus on what I’m doing now to be competitive in what I’m doing. It’s just the way I’m wired. In my outlook, I need to look at what is right in front of me. I know I can help this team. We’ll see how much that is.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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