McAdam: Should 'Tek get personal with Beckett?

McAdam: Should 'Tek get personal with Beckett?
April 11, 2011, 2:15 pm
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By Sean McAdam
CSNNE.com

BOSTON -- Morning-after musings . . .

It's hard not to find a link between Josh Beckett's masterpiece Sunday night and the presence of Jason Varitek behind the plate.

Surely, there were other factors beyond Jarrod Saltalamcchia in Beckett's first unsuccessful start in Cleveland, not the least of which was the weather.

But denying that Varitek impacted Beckett's superb outing Sunday night is folly. One person in the Red Sox clubhouse Sunday night theorized that Saltalamacchia might well have called the exact same game as Varitek did, made all the same decisions -- and the results might not have been the same.

There's an undenible comfort factor for Beckett in Varitek, which, given their history, is something of an irony.

When Beckett arrived in Boston in 2006, he spent his first season almost defiantly ignoring Varitek's wishes. Beckett had spent his first few years in the National League as a Texas gunslinger on the mound, challenging hitters to chase his 96 mph fastball up in the strike zone. When he transitioned to the American League -- and the American League East, in particular -- that strategy became a losing proposition. And still, Beckett insisted on approaching hitters that way, compiling an ERA of 5.01 while giving up 36 homers.

It wasn't until 2007, his best season from start to finish, when Beckett began trusting Varitek and following the captain's game plan.

Ever since, Beckett's performance has been markedly better with Varitek as his catcher.

That creates something of a problem for Terry Francona, who had hoped to avoid partnering a starter with a "personal catcher." Doing so limits the manager's flexibility and options.

Francona would prefer to catch Varitek when it makes the most sense for Saltalamacchia -- in a day game after a night game, for instance, to give Saltalamacchia the necessary rest. And because Varitek has hit far better from the right side in recent seasons, it makes sense to try to otherwise line up Varitek's starts against opposing lefties.

Manuevering around Beckett's starts can get in the way of either of those plans and could increase Varitek's workload while reducing Saltalamacchia's playing time.

That's a direction in which the Red Sox would rather not travel. First, the Sox pursued Saltalamacchia for several seasons and now that he's here, they want to give him every opportunity to succeed. Moreover, there are questions about how well Varitek will hold up under more games. Though he keeps himself in superb condition, catching is a demanding, punishing position and there are limits to Varitek as he nears his 39th birthday.

At the same time, it's impossible to ignore the impact Varitek has on Beckett. After five seasons, a trust has developed, to say nothing of sheer familiarity. Beckett seems to throw pitches with more conviction when Varitek is behind the plate.

Understand this: Beckett has never requested that Varitek be made his personal catcher. He makes no demands and expects no special treatment. When asked, he would tell Francona -- or anyone else, for that matter -- that who catches him should be of little concern.

A diva he's not.

But if Beckett is going to have a bounceback season, if he's to truly be the front-line starter that he was in 2007 and parts of 2009, then the Sox need to do everything in their power to help him.

For now, that includes pairing him with a catcher with whom he feels the most comfortable -- and damn the consequences.

The Red Sox have won just twice in their first nine games. Both times, the win resulted from one aspect of their game overcoming the shortcoming of an another.

On Friday, the Red Sox used their offense to overcome a poor start by John Lackey. Sunday, Beckett had to shut the Yankees out because his teammates could provide him with just one run through the first six innings.

While such inconsistency is common for slumpng teams -- when they hit, they don't pitch; and when they pitch, they don't hit -- it's hardly a formula for long-term success.

(The Red Sox can take some comfort from the fact that the Yankees, though owners of a better record, have demonstrated some of the same traits, though in their case, the offense has done more to make up for some shaky starting pitching.)

"Today," said unlikely offensive hero Marco Scutaro Sunday night, "we kind of put everything together, so that was nice."

Once the Sox put both elements of their game together, they should be fine. The offense has enormous and obvious potential but slow starts by Jacoby Ellsbury (benched Sunday night), Carl Crawford (hitless Sunday, but having far better at-bats) and Kevin Youkilis have limited the lineup.

The team's struggles with men in scoring position grew to ridiculous lengths Sunday, the victory notwithstanding.

They stranded 16 hitters Sunday night, including nine in scoring position, while going a pitiful 3-for-14 with runners in scoring position. Through nine games, they're hitting a putrid .197 (14-for-71) with RISP. Only Tampa (.148) has been worse.

Starting Monday, when the Tampa Bay Rays come to town, the Sox might have the perfect opportunity to get both their pitching and their attack going.

The Rays are the only team with a worse record in the American League than the Sox and their frustration boiled over Sunday in Chicago when maanger Joe Maddon got run in a heated exchange with umpires.

Beyond Manny Ramirez's quick exit, stage left, last Friday, the Rays are without their best hitter in Evan Longoria, who is on the disabled list with an oblique pull.

There hasn't been time for Maddon to reconstruct his bullpen, so decimated by free agent defections and if the Sox can get to the Tampa starters early, their path for a breakout offensive series could be before them.

Sean McAdam can be reached at smcadam@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Sean on Twitter at http:twitter.comsean_mcadam