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Backstops become backbones

Saltalamacchia, Varitek heat up

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By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / May 25, 2011

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CLEVELAND — They entertained signing Bengie Molina, trading for Jeff Mathis, Ryan Doumit, or Chris Snyder. There was a time not long ago when the Red Sox didn’t know how their catching would hold up and they were preparing an alternative plan.

They had committed to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, but he got off to a dreadful start. Thirty-nine-year-old Jason Varitek also was struggling at the plate.

There was a lot of concern. That concern has dissipated.

“Both guys have complemented each other really well,’’ manager Terry Francona said following a 4-2 win over the Indians last night in which Varitek homered, threw out two runners, and managed Josh Beckett’s game. “We’ve been talking the last week about it. Tek made some good throws, bangs the ball out of the ballpark. They do it every once in a while sitting down at that nine hole — it was seventh tonight — it’s come together a lot better.’’

Did he worry?

“I think when we were [2-10] we worried about everything,’’ Francona said. “No . . . I mean . . . Yeah, I guess [we worried]. We have confidence in guys and we need to be patient and that’s paying off. Because it’s our job, we worried about stuff like that.’’

All along Varitek has done what he always does — handle the staff. He’s been Beckett’s personal catcher and has guided him through a pretty good season; he’s now 4-1 with a 1.69 ERA. If Varitek were to list his accomplishments in order last night, helping Beckett through his outing would come first, followed by throwing out two would-be base stealers, followed by his seventh-inning home run that gave Boston a 4-1 lead.

“Honestly, it starts with the quality start,’’ Varitek said. “We had a different mix of pitches — more changeups and cutters — he didn’t have a feel for his curveball. He had a couple of different times [when it was working], but it wasn’t as good as he’s had it. Lost a little feel for it.’’

Varitek claimed he had no idea how long it had been since he’d hit a home run, but it was a long time. It was last May 30 against the Royals, a span of 117 at-bats. To put that into perspective, Albert Pujols just went 105 at-bats without a homer.

“I don’t know how long it’s been,’’ Varitek said. “It was nice . . . the timing of it. I’ve had good, quality at-bats whether I hit a home run or not. I’ve been having some good at-bats. I couldn’t have started any worse. I was 1 for 40 or whatever, and after that I started having competitive at-bats and not necessarily the results.’’

The numbers still don’t look terrific, but in his last five games, Varitek is 6 for 17 (.353) with a home run and two RBIs. Saltalamacchia snapped a five-game hitting streak Monday night and had hit .273 in his last 19 starts with three homers and 10 RBIs. Overall, he’s hitting just .229 with three homers and 12 RBIs. Eight of his last 15 hits have been for extra bases.

So there’s progress?

“I think we’re the same that we were,’’ Varitek said. “I think with our entire team — you can’t judge our entire team in one week for an entire season. Once things settled down we won some games. Everybody contributes.’’

If the production of Boston’s catchers had remained the same, there would have been a change. The team would have obtained a new body. The Sox believed this catching combination was going to do the job. Boston passed on signing Russell Martin for fear that his hip might act up. Martin hit his ninth home run for the Yankees last night and has been hitting around .270 most of the season.

Saltalamacchia has improved his receiving and it appears the staff is far more comfortable with him now.

The Sox really don’t have a catcher in their system they feel comfortable using if either Varitek or Saltalamacchia go down with an injury, so reinforcements would come from outside the organization.

Varitek did allow Michael Brantley to steal second in the first inning. But then he nailed Shin-Soo Choo to end the third and Travis Buck in the fourth, which allowed Beckett to face just three batters.

The caught stealings gave Beckett a lift. As did Varitek’s calming influence.

“It still comes down to leading with his fastball, his location. He threw quality locations — set up the slider, cutter and sinker,’’ said Varitek. “Those things are huge when you do that and change speeds. He’s had to do it different ways. He had to battle his neck the last time. Today was more of a finesse day rather than a power day. It should make him feel good because he can pitch in different ways.’’

When Beckett left in the seventh with two runners on and two outs, Varitek had to catch the sidearm offerings of Rich Hill.

“Hilly gives us a very tough angle for hitters. It’s a unique angle,’’ Varitek said. “I think he was running on fumes when we got to his last one, but that was key. Catching him is not easy — he’s coming over from first base. It looks like Randy [Johnson] used to. Looks like it’s coming from behind you. Very impressed. He’s a good man. He’s a good teammate. He gets his work in. He just patiently waited for his chance and he’s done an extremely good job. He’s got some zip and his ball takes off. He’s going to be even better.’’

Hill struck out Jack Hannahan to end the seventh and then pitched an effective eighth after walking pinch hitter Shelley Duncan, who advanced on a wild pitch by Hill that easily could have been scored a passed ball.

Nonetheless, Varitek got his pitchers over the hump.

One never knows if this combination will last the season, but at the moment it’s working.

Somewhere along the way Theo Epstein will be tempted to make a deal for a catcher, but that’s always tricky because the new guy would have little time to learn the staff.

The Sox believed patience would rectify their concerns. And for now, that’s the way it is.

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

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