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A chance to catch Lavarnway’s act

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / August 19, 2011

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Sometimes you get your chance, seize it, and never look back.

This is Ryan Lavarnway’s chance. With Kevin Youkilis going on the disabled list, he was brought up from Pawtucket and batted seventh for the Red Sox as the DH against the Royals last night.

The Sox won, 4-3, but Lavarnway went 0 for 4 with three fly outs to center and a strikeout.

“Wish I could have done more to help the team and I need to come back tomorrow and do a better job,’’ Lavarnway said. “I thought I had some good at-bats. I didn’t chase any bad pitches, which I always try not to do.’’

Jitters?

“My first at-bat I had a few butterflies, but I was all right,’’ he said. “I got into the pace of the game and the spirit of the game. I was able to speak to Big Papi on the bench about DHing and what he does, so that was helpful.’’

Oh, the big kid from Yale with the nice home run swing may bounce back to Triple A, but the astute scouts who watched in the minors think he’ll be a legitimate power threat in the major leagues.

I joked with colleague Pete Abraham that Lavarnway resembles, at least facially, a young Carlton Fisk. He’s also about 6 feet 4 inches, big and strong like Fisk, but I promised Abraham I would stop there.

As a receiver, Lavarnway has a lot of work to do, but what young catcher doesn’t?

He is often compared with Texas backstop Mike Napoli, a strong righthanded hitter who has power but was cast as a below-average receiver. With the Angels, Napoli had to overcome playing second fiddle to Jeff Mathis as a receiver, and manager Mike Scioscia didn’t make it easy on Napoli. With Texas, Napoli had, for a long time this season, the lowest catcher ERA in baseball.

Lavarnway, a converted outfielder, said he has a passion for catching and wants to get better. His work ethic is as solid as his brain power, which is very good, given his Yale pedigree. He can absorb instruction, and he understands setting up hitters. What he has to improve on is physically doing the things that he knows mentally, if that makes any sense.

A little tutelage from Gary Tuck, a little exposure to Jason Varitek, and Lavarnway could make big strides, much as Jarrod Saltalamacchia has this season. Suffice to say, unless he missteps big time, he is destined to be the Sox’ starting catcher in a year, maybe two. He simply hits too well for that not to happen.

This is the perfect storm for Lavarnway. David Ortiz has right heel bursitis and Youkilis needed to be shut down with a back strain. The Sox offense is going through its worst stretch of the season, void of power and production and runs.

Are they asking a kid to provide that? Not really, but a bit of youthful energy is always welcome, and Lavarnway has provided that and more in his stints at Portland and Pawtucket.

At Double A and Triple A, Lavarnway combined for 30 homers and 85 RBIs, though he was in a 2-for-26 stretch (and 5 for 40).

Last night, he came up in the second inning with Josh Reddick at second and one out, and popped to center in his first major league at-bat. He undoubtedly envisioned something better than that. The old man, Varitek, showed him how it’s done, driving in the run with a single into the left-field corner.

Lavarnway’s last three at-bats went fly out (fourth inning), strikeout (sixth), and fly out (ninth).

A scout who has watched a lot of Portland and Pawtucket games said, “There are players who can hit for power in the minor leagues but you don’t project them to do the same in the majors. Then there’s a guy like this, who might be even better in the majors.

“He’s got a nice approach at the plate. His swing is pretty compact and he’s got that timing mechanism in his swing that allows him to time things just right and elevate.

“I don’t think you’re going to see this kid overmatched. If he were with a different team, he would have been up long before this.’’

Lavarnway got word Wednesday night that he might be joining the major league team. He was pulled from a game with Pawtucket in the seventh inning.

With Varitek and Saltalamacchia on duty, Lavarnway is not expected to catch in Boston. The one scenario in which he could is if he has gotten hot at the plate when Ortiz is ready to return. The Sox might sacrifice some defense and experience for his bat.

“We have enough catching,’’ said manager Terry Francona. “We can use his bat. Tremendous hitter, especially for power in Double A and then carrying over into Triple A.

“He’s worked so hard with his catching that I think he’s actually turned into an average catcher. That’s where he has some work to do. You may not see him catch here, but hopefully he’ll hit a few home runs.’’

No young player wants to make a career as a DH, but when asked about it, Lavarnway said, “I just want to be in the lineup, help the team win.’’

He said he has taken a “middle of the field approach’’ to hitting this season, trying to hit the gaps and not necessarily aiming to hit homers. He also tried hard not to watch the roster in Boston and wonder whether he’d be the next player recalled.

“I didn’t want to get ahead of myself too much,’’ said Lavarnway.

After PawSox manager Arnie Beyeler gave him the word, “It was bad on the plane - knots in my stomach,’’ said Lavarnway. “Now that I’m here, it’s back to business. The routine of the day will help me get back into it.’’

Lavarnway is looking forward to working again with Tuck, the catching coach, as he did in spring training. Those sessions seemed to improve his defense quite a bit. But once the season started, Tuck stuck with the major leaguers in his role as bullpen coach.

Lavarnway didn’t work much with Boston’s starting pitchers in spring training, but he did get to catch bullpens with some of the relievers.

Lavarnway’s family wasn’t able to get in from the Los Angeles area in time for his debut. But he did receive numerous texts from friends, including Brett Hayes of the Marlins, his offseason workout partner, advising him on how to approach the big leagues.

“Basically they tell me it’s the same game and just keep doing what got you here,’’ he said.

If he does that, it could be pretty exciting.

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

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