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It’s not time to shift the catching gear

By Nick Cafardo
April 22, 2011

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Jarrod Saltalamacchia was not in last night’s lineup, marking the second consecutive day, and the third time in four games, the Red Sox catcher of the future was absent. What gives?

We know what it looks like. It looks like the Sox are distancing themselves from Salty.

But a team official insisted yesterday that they are not bailing on him. Although Saltalamacchia is batting .194, it is less than a month into the season and the Sox feel he is improving. But if that’s the case, why is he not playing?

“We’re still very much committed to Salty,’’ said the official. “We’re not bailing on this. We think he’s going to come around and he’s going to be our long-term catcher.’’

The Sox don’t have their main talent evaluators looking at catchers right how.

That was done during spring training. The possible suspects in trade, if they do bail out, would be 39-year-old Ivan Rodriguez from Washington (would the Sox be the first team in baseball history with two 39-year-old catchers?) or Chris Snyder or Ryan Doumit from Pittsburgh.

Right now, the Sox are just sitting still, hoping that Jason Varitek, who is hitting .043 after going 0 for 3 in last night’s 4-2 victory over the Angels in 11 innings, will start to hit while continuing to excel with the pitching staff. And hoping that Saltalamacchia starts to hit the way they think he can, handle the staff, and smooth out his throwing.

Manager Terry Francona said he went with Varitek again because of his success catching Josh Beckett.

Francona also said that Daisuke Matsuzaka has a comfort level with Varitek, which leaves Saltalamacchia to catch the other three. Whether this will be the routine the rest of the way is anyone’s guess.

“What I wanted to do this weekend is I wanted to catch them both twice,’’ Francona explained. “If I would have gone one after the other, I would have had them backward. Tek has done such a good job with Beckett, so I’d rather do it this way. It also gives Tek Dice and Beckett, guys he’s done a pretty good job with.’’

Of course, with an older catcher, there’s the issue of wear and tear.

“It’s something we need to think about,’’ said Francona. “I know he’s not 70, and I don’t want to run him into the ground. He works hard at being in shape.

“He’s a little bit sluggish, which is the right word right now. But again, the saving grace is, if we’re shaking hands after the game, he did enough.’’

There have been reports of the team’s growing fondness for catching prospect Tim Federowicz, but is he ready to carry the load in the majors? The feeling is no. At least not yet.

So the Sox have decided to remain patient with the catching. As long as pitchers are excelling — and the starters had a 1.15 ERA in the last five games — that means the catching is working.

“As long as we win, that’s all I care about,’’ Saltalamacchia said.

Saltalamacchia, 25, is in his prime and needs to take the job once and for all or forever hold his peace. He has had chances in Atlanta and Texas, but this is by far the biggest commitment any team has made to him.

“Without a doubt,’’ Saltalamacchia said. “They’ve handled it 100 percent perfectly. They’ve been vocal. They’ve been vocal to you [media] guys. It shows the confidence they have. As a player you need that.

“I’m getting my hits now, but it’s going to take a few three-hit games to get my average to where I want it to be. I’m 35 or 36 at-bats into the season, so I’m getting to that point where I’m starting to feel more comfortable and more like I did in spring training.’’

Saltalamacchia knows he’ll feel the heat from Red Sox Nation if he doesn’t pick things up. It’s an unforgiving market for anyone not up to the challenge, and the catching position has been steady for 10 years under Varitek.

In a lineup filled with All-Stars, the Sox figured they could take a chance at catcher. They needed to get lucky there and with a situational lefty reliever.

Whether they will, it’s too early to tell. So far, the signs aren’t great. As the Sox are making a slight resurgence, catcher still sticks out as the sore thumb.

“You obviously play more consistent when you play every day,’’ said Saltalamacchia. “Throughout my career, I’ve had a schedule where I’ve been on two games and off two games, so I’ve been in this situation before and I’m fine with it.’’

Saltalamacchia said the brass told him in the offseason that Varitek would catch more than an ordinary backup, but that he was the No. 1.

“In the first six games, I played five of them,’’ he said. “It’s early in the season and we need to be healthy for the end of the year. Tek’s body is adapting and I’m adapting to it as well. We’ve had a lot going on every day. Everything we did this offseason just doesn’t happen like that.

“The throws to second are getting better. I’m rushing still. I’m not taking the time I need to take. Then there are throws that have been perfect.’’

Going into last night, Sox pitchers were 4-2 with an ERA of 2.50 with Varitek; they were 2-9, 7.14, with Saltalamacchia. While that appears lopsided, it is an unfair comparison. Obviously, a catcher who has caught a staff as long as Varitek has is going to have the better numbers as opposed to a young catcher who just started catching the staff last August.

So yes, while there’s talk all around the team about the “catching situation’’ there’s nothing being discussed internally to suggest there’s any decision pending to pull the plug. Not this early, anyway.

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

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