THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

Flex approach in this case isn’t sign of strength

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / April 21, 2011

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OAKLAND, Calif. — A lot of stuff has happened to the Red Sox here over the years.

This is where Tom Yawkey sipped champagne when the 1975 Sox clinched the American League pennant, completing a three-game sweep of the three-time world champion A’s.

It’s where Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers briefly wore Red Sox uniforms when Charlie Finley held a fire sale in 1976.

It’s where Jim Rice ripped the shirt off the back of future Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Fainaru in the visitors clubhouse.

It’s where Roger Clemens set himself on fire, wearing eye- black and Ninja Turtle shoelaces while getting ejected from a playoff game.

It’s where Johnny Damon collided with Damian Jackson when the soon-to-be-doomed Sox won the first round of the playoffs in 2003.

All that history, and the Sox hardly played here at all this season. Just two games in less than 21 hours. It is April 21 and the Red Sox are done with the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum for 2011. Very weird.

The good news is that the Sox won the mini-series finale yesterday, 5-3. So they are not going to go 0-81 on the road this year.

But they do have a chance to try 79 or 80 different road lineups.

Who’s at shortstop today? Who’s behind the plate? Where’s Waldo Crawford hitting? Who is leadoff man du jour? It’s a New England parlor game, from Eastport to Block Island.

Yesterday, Marco “Wally Pipp’’ Scutaro was back at short and banged out a couple of hits. Jed Lowrie played third base and hit his third homer in five games. No. 7 hitter Crawford actually knocked in a run. Leadoff man of the hour J.D. Drew homered. Jason Varitek caught Clay Buchholz while Jarrod Saltalamacchia sat.

Using the whole roster is great. It makes sense for Terry Francona to exploit righty-lefty matchups and keep his subs fresh. But some of the fluidity owes to underperformance more than flexibility.

The catching situation is at a critical mass. Granted, there are no great backstops in the American League East this year, but thus far the Salty Experiment isn’t working out very well. Saltalamacchia is hitting .194, only .083 from the right side. But that’s not the issue.

Tuesday night, he had trouble corralling a routine one-hop throw from Darnell McDonald in center. He almost threw a ball into left field when Cliff Pennington stole third. One of his throws back to the mound was dangerously off-line.

In compliance with the organization-wide mandate to promote the readiness of Saltalamacchia, Sox pitchers keep saying nice things about him, but the starters don’t yet appear wholly comfortable with his game-calling and target.

It was somewhat surprising to see Varitek behind the plate for Buchholz yesterday. Josh Beckett pitches in Anaheim tonight, and Beckett has made little effort to disguise the fact that he prefers throwing to Varitek.

Stay tuned on this one. The Sox have been in love with Salty for several years and hitched their wagon to the kid when they let Victor Martinez walk. Right now, there is nobody else.

The Sox are 4-2 when Varitek starts, 2-9 when he doesn’t. According to Globe baseball guru Pete Abraham, the staff ERA is under 2.50 with Varitek catching and 7.14 with Salty behind the dish. Varitek is hitting an amazing .050, but who cares?

Let the quarterback controversy begin. Just how many games can Varitek catch?

“I don’t know the answer,’’ said the 39-year-old captain after yesterday’s win. “Up until right now, I hadn’t caught nine innings. Now I’ve got a few of those under my belt and I’ve recovered well.’’

Could he, for instance, catch Beckett tonight if Francona asked?

“Is that a loaded question?’’ Varitek said. “I can do a lot. Whatever is asked. Whatever I’m needed to do. You can’t put a limitation on someone just because of age. Can I catch 140 games? I don’t know.’’

Francona would give you his bank-card password before he’d talk about tonight’s lineup. But the catching situation is increasingly . . . interesting.

Varitek went into captainspeak when it was mentioned that the Sox are 4-2 with him behind the dish.

“We’re a capable team,’’ he said. “Let’s not create any drama over an 0-6 start. A lot of things go into something like that 4-2 number you mentioned.’’

Varitek’s presence in the lineup yesterday meant that the Sox had five starters south of the Mendoza Line. And you wonder why they can’t win on the road.

Boston scored only 16 runs in its first seven road games, all losses. Lefties have been particularly deadly on the Sons of Tito, and the A’s have eight southpaws on their staff. It’ll be nice to get to Anaheim, where Mike Scioscia has four righties lined up for the long Easter weekend.

Crawford has batted in three spots in the order this season. Four guys have been tried at leadoff. Jacoby Ellsbury, the natural leadoff guy, is hitting .182 and struck out three times (all looking) yesterday.

Yesterday’s leadoff guy wasn’t complaining about the rotating lineup or his spot at the top of the order.

“I’ve done it a few times and I understand the circumstances,’’ said Drew. “I come in here every day, check to see where I am, and then go grind out my at-bats.’’

That’s the way it goes with the Red Sox in April 2011. Can’t wait to see who gets to catch Beckett tonight.

Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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