That Ryan Lavarnway can hit has never been a question. He hit at Yale and he has hit .284 in the minors for the Red Sox with an OPS of .897. Lavarnway has 50 home runs in the last two minor league seasons.
Vaunted Yankees prospect Jesus Montero, by way of comparison, had 39 home runs over the same two seasons with a minor league OPS of .814.
The question was whether Lavarnway could catch. He is a big moose of a kid at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds and in college coach John Stuper tried him at first base and in right field.
But a catcher who can hit and hit for power is a precious commodity in baseball. Guys like that — think Jorge Posada and Mike Piazza — can be cornerstone players for years. So the Red Sox have nurtured Lavarnway’s catching skills, teaching him the finer points of throwing, blocking balls and especially calling a game.
That’s what made tonight’s 8-7 victory against the Orioles so special for the Red Sox. Lavarnway not only drove in four runs with a pair of home runs, he played with uncommon aplomb behind the plate.
“Ryan took command of that game,” said Jarrod Saltalamacchia, whose injury opened the door to Lavarnway starting. “What a great job. He slowed the game down and everything he had to do. We’re so proud of him.”
Lavarnway threw out Adam Jones trying to steal third in the second innings. He blocked the curveballs in the dirt throw by Erik Bedard. He survived the quirkiness of Alfredo Aceves and in the end nursed Jonathan Papelbon through a scary ninth inning.
“I’ve been in the bullpen every day that I’ve been here after the fifth inning warming up [the relievers]. So I’ve seen the trajectory of their pitches,” Lavarnway said. “I know how they work a little bit. I’ve talked to Tek and Salty about the way they like to work.”
He also made a big throw on a squibbler out in front of the plate by Matt Wieters.
“I looked at Pap to see if he was going to get it or not and the look he gave me was, ‘You better field this ball.’ So I went after it and kind of tripped as I was throwing but I got the ball to first base.”
His manager was thrilled.
“He played his ass off,” Terry Francona said. “That was exciting. Besides what he did offensively, I thought he ran the game; I thought he had a lot of poise. That was one of the more exciting things to watch. We’ve seen a lot of interesting things here over the years. That was right near the top.”
In my experience, you can tell a lot about a player by how well he handles what comes with success. After the game tonight, surrounded by reporters, Lavarnway spoke confidently about what he did without bragging. He looked people in the eye and answered questions thoughtfully.
“It definitely feels good. It feels like I could wear the jersey with pride now, especially a little bit more now that I’ve helped out and I’m contributing,” he said. “That’s what I wanted to do when I got here. I didn’t just want to have a September call up that was meaningless.”
When ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian asked Lavarnway if could remember being surrounded by so many people, he laughed and said it in middle school playing monkey in the middle. You walked away feeling that Lavarnway will be talking to reporters plenty more in the years to come.
Now the season comes down to one more game. The Tampa Bay Rays beat the Yankees, 5-3, to stay tied with the Sox atop the American League wild card standings at 90-71.
If the teams are tied after tomorrow night, they will meet in a play-in game tomorrow afternoon at Tampa Bay.
“I think it’s really good for baseball, not so good for my stomach,” Francona said. “It’s exciting. If you don’t want to show up tomorrow and play, you got no pulse. My goodness, I can’t remember being that nervous in a long time.”
One has to suppose Lavarnway was nervous, too. Imagine being 24 and starting your first game behind the plate with the entire season on the line.
“This is what you dream about as a kid,” he said. “It’s one game, win or lose. Win or go home. It’s kind of a playoff atmosphere even through it’s still the regular season. We’re going to throw our best guys out there and play to win.”
Right now, Lavarnway is one of those best guys. A little ahead of schedule, he has arrived.