Saltalamacchia ready for a fresh start with Red Sox

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Saltalamacchia ready for a fresh start with Red Sox

By SeanMcAdam
CSNNE.com

HOUSTON -- When the Red Sox take the field for their regular season opener Friday afternoon at The Ballpark in Arlington, a look around the diamond could fool you into thinking that you're watching an All-Star team.

Indeed, of the nine position players, six have made All-Star teams and four have won Gold Gloves. In fact, the Sox are so deep, two of their four extra players have been selected to All-Star teams and won Gold Gloves at their positions.

Everywhere you look, the Red Sox have experienced, established, and accomplished players.

Then there's Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

At one of the game's most critical positions, the Red Sox have entrusted a player with just 200 major league games to his credit, now playing for his third organization.

Jason Varitek, who has caught more games than anyone else in franchise history, has been made his backup. Victor Martinez, the No. 1 catcher for the last season and a third, was allowed to leave via free agency.

Some might see this as a huge gamble. The Sox, after all, have a mostly veteran pitcing staff, one of the better rotations in either league and the club is the heavy favorite to win the pennant and reach the World Series.

Some, but not the Red Sox.

In Salty, they trust. And Saltalamachia seems grateful for their confidence.

"I'm definitely ready to grab it and go,'' he said recently as the season opener drew closer. "I want to take this opportunity. I've said that in the past, but this is like the opportunity.''

Since being drafted in the sandwich round, 36th overall, in 2003 by the Atlanta Braves, Saltalamacchia has been ticketed for stardom. But he was then packaged (with Neftali Feliz and Elvis Andrus) to Texas in exchange for Mark Teixeira.

In an organization crowded with other young promising receivers (Taylor Teagarden, Max Ramirez), Saltalamacchia was to be the catcher of the future.

But then Saltalmacchia developed the "yips'' -- unable to throw the ball back to the pitcher on the mound, much less down to second base to nab would-be base stealers.

It's not an uncommon affliction that has changed some careers (two-time All-Star Dale Murphy converted to the outfield because of it) and ended others (including former Mets catcher Mackey Sasser).

Sent to the minor leagues last spring, Saltalamacchia worked to overcome the issue, which is often largely a mental block. By the time he had corrected the problem, the Rangers had moved on, trading for veteran Benji Molina and making Saltalamacchia available -- cheap -- to the Sox at the July 31 deadline.

When Saltalamacchia looks back on his career trajectory in the last year, he can hardly believe his good fortune. And he knows that, having survived the yips, he can now handle anything -- expectations, pressure -- that baseball can throw at him.

"It was rough,'' he said of the experience. "I had a rough time with that. But I've said it before, at the end, I'm mentally tougher than I've ever been. I hope nobody ever has to go through what I went through. There were nights when I went home and I was just exhausted. It drains you. You're head's spinning, spinning. It made me a better person.

"There were days when I honeslty thought I was going to retire. I thought I was done. I was at my all-time low as far as my baseball career was concerned. I was thinking about changing positions, all kinds of stuff. So, yeah, there are times you're never going to forget. But looking back, it was all about mental toughness.''

A year later, Saltalamacchia is with a new team, ready for a new start, with the full backing of the organization. Though the Red Sox expressed an interest in Russell Martin in December, they never wavered in their belief that Saltalamacchia could handle the No. 1 catching duties.

This spring, his career-threatening affliction conquered, Saltalamacchia feels reborn.

"Exactly,'' he said. "I've never had more fun playing baseball than I am right now. It's fun again. The guys on this team make it so much fun. We're all friends. We have each other's back. Nobody judges anybody. If someone falls, we pick each other up.''

Saltalamacchia hinted that wasn't always the case in the Texas organization.

"There, it was like, 'You might make the team if you don't lose your job.' It was always something negative. Here, it's so positive. It's 'Do what you have to do to get ready. We're behind you 100 percent.' That's something that every player needs. It's hard to explain, but it feels good to have people in your corner, especially with what's expected from this team.

"So for them to say, 'We know you're good. We see it.' . . . It's almost like the past few years, I forgot that at times that I am a good player. You forget that sometimes when you get put in certain situations. So I'm definitely happy and excited. It just feels good. Having the confidence of the team honestly helps us be better players. Nobody realizes that we're humans, that we go through the same stuff everyone else does in our daily lives. So it's nice to have someone in your corner who supports you.''

It's not just the front office, the manager and the coaching staff which trusts him. The veteran pitchers also have expressed support for him.

"As far as the tools go,'' said Josh Beckett, "he's got the tools. That's something the Red Sox have seen basically since I've been here. He's someone they've always wanted and you can't really question their scouting, whether it's amateur or pro, they've done a pretty damn good job."

Saltalamachia spent several weeks last winter working with catching instructor Gary Tuck, who coached him on his footwork, positioning, release and game-calling. It was like a post-graduate course in catching that sped up Saltalamacchia's development even before spring training began.

"I was a lot more prepared,'' Saltalamacchia said. "I hadn't worked with anybody before and to work with Tuck, the guru, it was great. It was something I needed to get where I am right now. Coming into spring training, if I had to do all that stuff, it would be a lot tougher. Coming in, I was above and beyond where I normally would be. I got to work with the best for two months.''

Beyond Tuck, Saltalamaachia has another catching resource in Varitek, who has unselfishly tutored him since last summer, knowing that he was grooming his successor.

Varitek's influence is unmistakable to some of the veterans.

"He's got the Captain to look at and think, 'That's how I want to be,' '' said Beckett. "Everyone is like, 'We want you to be exactly like him -- I don't care if you literally are exactly like him. If you like the same foods . . . everything.' We don't care because we know how that's worked for Tek.''

"I think he's going to be fine. He's got someone he can go to on a day-to-day basis and ask 'What do I do with this?' or 'How do I handle this?' He knows he's going to get a straight answer and know it's going to be a damn good one, too.''

Beckett has noticed Saltalamachia being more assertive, more confident in his dealings with pitchers this spring.

"He's always been kind of outgoing,'' said Clay Buchholz. "But knowing that he's going to be the guy, he's kind of coming into his own.''

"He doesn't fall into patterns,'' said Beckett, ''which is the one thing you want to avoid. Everybody here kind of calls their own game. He's just putting down suggestion fingers. A lot of times when a catcher overthinks things, you fall into patterns. He doesn't do that.''

Varitek, who was drafted in the first round twice and was named the best college catcher of the 20th century by Baseball America, insists that Saltalmacchia has "more talent than I had at that age,'' and has little doubt that his protege will succeed.

But most important, perhaps, is that a year after he bottomed out and fell into a baseball abyss, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, with some help, believes it, too.

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

Red Sox confident in Smith-less bullpen, plan no moves at this point

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Red Sox confident in Smith-less bullpen, plan no moves at this point

BOSTON -- The loss of reliever Carson Smith for the rest of this season -- and the start of next year, too -- is potentially a significant blow for the Red Sox bullpen.

But both vice-president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and manager John Farrell expressed confidence that the Sox can survive -- and even thrive -- without the hard-throwing right-handed reliever, who underwent Tommy John surgery Tuesday and will be sidelined until at least the middle of next season.

"Unfortunately, we really haven't had Carson much this year,'' noted Dombrowski, referring to the total of 2 2/3 innings Smith has pitched, "so our bullpen now has the ninth, eighth and seventh innings set with Craig [Kimbrel], Koji [Uehara] and [Junichi Tazawa]. [Matt] Barnes and Heath [Hembree] have both had opportunities to step up and pitched well for us. We'll continue to see if they do that.''

"I really like our bullpen,'' echoed Farrell. "We've had depth emerge with Hembree and Barnes, and we're able to distribute the workload evenly to protect Taz and Koji.''

But the Sox' high-leverage set-up crew features a 41-year-old (Uehara) and Tazawa, who has faltered badly in the August in each of the last two seasons because of overwork.

"I guess it's something we'll continue to watch,'' said Dombrowski. "There's still quite a bit of time before the [Aug. 1] trade deadline. So you continue to watch that. I feel comfortable with the way it is now, but we'll have to wait and see. We didn't anticipate this and that's really why we got Carson -- to give us more depth in case something did happen. But we'll continue to see what takes place.''

Dombrowski said it was too soon to begin exploring outside trade possibilities, given that talk doesn't intensify until after the draft in June.

"If something [else] were to happen,'' Dombrowski said, "I guess we'd be more aggressive. But right now, the way Barnes and Hembree (are pitching), along with [Robbie] Ross Jr. and [Tommy] Layne . . . we feel pretty good about our bullpen -- right now.''

"I really like our bullpen,'' noted Farrell. "We've had depth emerge with Hembree and Barnes and we're able to distribute the workload evenly to protect Taz and Koji.''

One possibile option could be taking a look at Joe Kelly in the bullpen. Kelly was sensational Saturday, allowing one hit in 6 2/3 innings in his first start back from a shoulder impingement. But it's long been thought that his stuff would translate well to the bullpen, and the Sox will have six starting pitchers when Eduardo Rodriguez returns.

"It's a great question, but it's not one I'll approach at this time,'' said Dombrowski. "We haven't specifically talked about putting Joe Kelly in the bullpen. But we're also aware that we're not going to use six starters.''

Smith is expected to miss the next 11-14 months, the typical recovery time from Tommy John surgery.

He was first injured on March 21, when he left the mound in Jupiter, Fla. during a Grapefruit League game. The diagnosis was a strained flexor muscle in the forearm, and he returned to action earlier this month. But he continued to experience discomfort, and a followup MRI Friday revealed a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL).

Dombrowski said "there was nothing at the time in March (that suggested a torn UCL). Flexor muscles, sometimes that leads to (torn UCL's). But not always. It's an alert that goes up in your mind when dealing with elbow. But you can't spend time obsessing about it, because then you wouldn't sleep on any night.''

Dombrowski said there were no red flags at the time of last December's trade with Seattle that Smith may be pre-disposed to this kind of injury with his cross-fire, three-quarters delivery.

"I think when you look at his delivery,'' acknowledged Dombrowski, "you'd say it's an unusual delivery. It's probably more apt to have injury. We had the medical information and we thought he'd be fine.''

Tuesday's Red Sox-Rockies lineups: Shaw sits out for first time all year

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Tuesday's Red Sox-Rockies lineups: Shaw sits out for first time all year

BOSTON -- For the first time since last season, Travis Shaw is not in the Red Sox' lineup.

Shaw, suffering from a minor left-hand injury, will sit out Tuesday night's game against Colorado, snapping a string of 76 consecutive starts. Josh Rutledge will play third base in his place.

The lineups:

ROCKIES:
Charlie Blackmon CF
Trevor Story SS
Nolan Arenado 3B
Mark Reynolds 1B
Carlos Gonzalez RF
Ryan Raburn DH
Gerardo Parra LF
Dustin Garneau C
DJ LeMahieu 2B
---
Jorge De La Rosa P

RED SOX:
Mookie Betts RF
Dustin Pedroia 2B
Xander Bogaerts SS
David Ortiz DH
Hanley Ramirez 1B
Chris Young LF
Jackie Bradley Jr. CF
Josh Rutledge 3B
Christian Vazquez C
---
David Price P

Red Sox bullpen takes a blow: Smith to undergo Tommy John surgery

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Red Sox bullpen takes a blow: Smith to undergo Tommy John surgery

The Boston Red Sox' worst fears with Carson Smith have been realized: The reliever needs Tommy John surgery and will miss the rest of the season.

The Sox announced this morning that Smith will undergo the procedure today in New York.

Smith injured his elbow during spring training and was able to pitch in only three regular-season games after being activated on May 3. His loss will probably step up the team's efforts to acquire more bullpen help, as Smith was expected to reduce the workload on Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara as set-ups for closer Craig Kimbrel. In the short term, Matt Barnes and Heath Hembree will probably help in that role.