Giving Saltalamacchia the starting job speaks volumes about the Sox’ faith in him
There’s no getting around it. You can’t say Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s name fast three times without tripping over your tongue. To get a handle on the longest last name in major league history, you must break it down to its basic elements: 14 letters (8 consonants, 6 vowels) and 6 syllables.
Strung together across his back, the letters of his name cover nearly every inch of his No. 39 Red Sox jersey.
Upon closer inspection, it seems to form something of a rainbow, with “Salt’’ springing from his left latissimus dorsi and ascending toward the left rear deltoid, “alamac’’ stretching across the expanse of his trapezius along his shoulders, and “chia’’ descending at the right rear deltoid toward the right latissimus.
This season, his first as the Red Sox’ starting catcher, the 25-year-old Saltalamacchia will likely stretch and strain every muscle group of his strapping 6-foot-4-inch, 235-pound frame to shoulder the weighty responsibility of handling the Boston pitching staff.
It starts today at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, where Saltalamacchia made his two previous Opening Day starts for the Rangers. Last year, in fact, he hit a bases-loaded single in the ninth for a 5-4 walkoff victory over the Blue Jays.
Now, he says, he feels more prepared than ever to handle the day-to-day grind and the long haul of a baseball season that Sox fans hope will stretch well into October.
“It’s the first spring where I really concentrated on getting ready for the season,’’ said Saltalamacchia. “I’m not trying to prove anything. I’m not trying to go out there and play like it’s October. I’m just doing the little things to get ready, stuff like that.’’
Little things like honing his technique as a catcher by working with bullpen coach Gary Tuck during the offseason.
Little things like spending extra time in the batting cage.
When reliever Daniel Bard watched Saltalamacchia take batting practice for the first time this spring, he was astonished.
“The sound of the ball coming off his bat . . . it was different,’’ said Bard. “It’s got some pop to it.’’
A career .248 hitter with 23 home runs, 95 RBIs, and a .315 on-base percentage, the switch-hitting Saltalamacchia led the Sox this spring with a .405 batting average, a .465 on-base percentage, a .649 slugging percentage, and an off-the-charts 1.114 OPS.
Position opens up When the Red Sox acquired Saltalamacchia at the trading deadline last July 31 for first baseman Christopher McGuiness, righthanded pitcher Roman Mendez, and catcher Michael Thomas (the player to be named later), it wasn’t necessarily for the pop in his bat as much as his overall potential. But he appeared in only 10 games with Boston before undergoing surgery Sept. 28 to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb.
When veteran catcher Victor Martinez signed with Detroit in the offseason, the Sox placed their trust in Saltalamacchia, even though he had yet to catch a full season.
In 2009, he made a career-high 83 appearances and played 714 innings behind the plate for the Rangers before experiencing right shoulder problems in early August and going on the disabled list Aug. 15.
He underwent season-ending surgery Sept. 9, 2009, after being diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, which required the removal of a rib from his right side after complications developed.
“We negotiated with Victor, but we always felt there was a lot of untapped potential with Saltalamacchia,’’ said Sox general manager Theo Epstein. “He’s somebody we felt could grow into an everyday job. So we weren’t going to act in desperation to do something that didn’t make sense to us and bring in a catcher when we felt like we had a good option.
“We challenged him to have a productive winter, whether his role was going to be as everyday guy, job share, or backup. He had some things he needed to improve on to become a productive member of this team and we’re going to give him an opportunity.
“He’s made the most of it. He reshaped his body, physically, over the winter and he reworked his catching mechanics with Gary Tuck, and he’s gone above and beyond to get to know each and every pitcher on the staff and develop a good rapport with them. So we couldn’t be happier.’’
Said Jason Varitek, “He has a lot of ability and a body type that can endure a big, long season and plus tools all the way around on the field.’’
But that’s as a catcher, not a first baseman.
Much to his chagrin, Saltalamacchia found himself playing that position a lot in 2007 after the Braves traded him and four other players to Texas in a deal that sent Ron Mahay and Mark Teixeira to Atlanta.
Saltalamacchia had played just 14 games at first base for Atlanta, but in Texas that season, he started more games at first (24) than behind the plate (22).
Now, though, he no longer has to worry about packing a first baseman’s glove in his equipment bag.
“The message that was sent to me was that [the Red Sox] trusted me,’’ he said. “They had seen my ability, which, for me, feels great because the past three years I really hadn’t felt that. Back then, I was just trying to figure out what was wrong and that type of thing, whereas now they actually believe in me, and it feels great.
“Everybody on this team, every baseball player, every person needs that. We’re not machines, you know? We go out there and we play this game and we’re men and they treat us like men.’’
But there remains a lingering question: Can Saltalamacchia go the distance?
“I don’t have any concerns,’’ he said. “But definitely right now I want to make sure that my body is good, my body is ready to go the full season. I don’t want to get injured.
“Catching is a tough position and you’re going to get hurt, but I’ve done everything I can to limit that and to make sure my body is ready.’’
Rapport established Apart from remaining healthy, Sox manager Terry Francona said Saltalamacchia has to concern himself with one thing above all others: game management of the pitching staff.
“If we’re shaking hands at the end of a game, he did his job,’’ Francona said. “Sounds easy and it may be oversimplifying, but that’s really what it is. He’s got to run the game, take care of his pitchers, and he understands that.’’
It has helped to have a veteran presence like Varitek to assist him.
“It’s been great,’’ Saltalamacchia said. “We’re friends, and he helps me out any way I need it. I can help him out if I can catch a certain pitcher he hasn’t seen and I can tell him what I see, so it’s good being around a guy like him.
“He’s been through everything. What he went through with the Mariners was a lot like what I went through at Texas. We’re sort of on the same page and we’re able to help each other out.’’
While Epstein characterized their relationship as one of pupil and mentor, Varitek seemed to chafe at that notion.
“I don’t think it’s about me ‘mentoring’ him,’’ said Varitek. “Everybody’s trying to get themselves ready to play games right now and we’ve been able to communicate and talk about all sorts of different things, you know, relating to the game. Our line of communication has been great and it needs to continue to be that way to move forward.’’
Saltalamacchia has strived to achieve that goal with an easygoing approach in his dealings with the pitchers.
“He’s got the outgoing personality to not care who he’s talking to,’’ said Jon Lester. “He’ll go up there and talk to you and figure out, ‘Hey, this is what I’d like to do; what do you like to do in this situation?’ And when he gets out behind the plate, you know who’s in charge. He’s just like Tek.
“He sits back there and you know he’s in charge of the game. He’s fine with you calling your own game and he’s not going to be upset with it. I just think his personality fits our whole team, especially our pitching staff.’’
Said Bard, “He doesn’t pass by a pitcher without saying something, whether it’s something related to the game or an off-the-wall joke or whatever. You need that to just kind of build that relationship and trust.
“You see how hard he’s worked to prepare to be an everyday guy for us. That right there gets my respect, because I know he’s going to put the work in and he’s going to study the hitters and he’s going to know the scouting reports going in. And I know he’s probably taken a lot of that from the way Tek prepares for games. You see a lot of similarities there.
“But Salty probably talks a lot more, and that’s probably the only difference.’’
Right now, Saltalamacchia is in a good place. Nothing aches. The thumb is fine. The shoulder is good. Everything has come together for him on a professional and personal level. He and his wife, Ashley, are expecting their third child next week, just before the home opener against the Yankees.
“Everything is there for me,’’ he said. “I’m just looking forward to living it day by day. First and foremost, being right with the Lord, everything else will work out.
“I’m not worried about anything. We’ve got a great group of guys here. This is a special team. I would love nothing more than to be a part of it, and I’ve got a great opportunity to be a part of it.’’
If Jarrod Saltalamacchia can convert Red Sox Nation into believers, his tongue-twister of a last name no doubt will become a household name.
Sal-ta-la-mac-chi-a. Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?
Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.