Varitek awakens at perfect time

Varitek awakens at perfect time

ST. PETERSBURG -- Maybe Jason Varitek has a knack for coming up with clutch hits in the postseason because he has the ability to not make too much out of them.

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"I say this all the time, but I can go 0-for-2,000 and put down the right fingers and get pitchers to do stuff and come away gratified," Varitek said after his go-ahead homer helped the Red Sox to a 4-2 victory in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday night. "You may not have the opportunity [for that] in other positions, but I do."

On Saturday, Varitek could feel happy about both. And he only had to go hitless in his previous 15 postseason at-bats before he got there.

Given the precarious state of Red Sox Nation, a loss away from elimination, Boston will take any clutch home runs it can get this weekend. At least within the clubhouse, though, there was something special about having Saturday's game-turning blast come from the captain, the rock behind the plate.

Of Varitek's previous 10 home runs during his storied postseason career, three were game-tying shots. Seven came in the sixth inning or later. Only two came in blowouts. When he hits them, he usually hits them in big situations.

However, Varitek had hit only one since the 2004 ALCS. For that matter, he hadn't recorded a hit this postseason since he singled off Angels starter John Lackey in Game 4 of the AL Division Series. He picked a fine time to break both of those droughts. His solo homer came in the sixth inning, and it put the Red Sox ahead for good.

"I don't I think I could, from our side, think of anything more appropriate," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "I mean, our whole dugout went crazy."

The Red Sox obviously know what Varitek means to the team. But they also realize what contributing means to Varitek.

Francona in elimination games
The Red Sox are 9-1 in elimination games under manager Terry Francona.
YearSeriesFoeGameResult
2004ALCSYankees4Won
2004ALCSYankees5Won
2004ALCSYankees6Won
2004ALCSYankees7Won
2005ALDSWhite Sox3Lost
2007ALCSIndians5Won
2007ALCSIndians6Won
2007ALCSIndians7Won
2008ALCSRays5Won
2008ALCSRays6Won

"You feel great for him," closer Jonathan Papelbon said, "because he's the No. 1 grinder on our team. He's the one that grinds out everything. He's the one that basically sets the example for us to go out there. Not only does he tell us we've got to go out there and grind away at-bats and grind away pitches, he goes out there and sets the example himself."

Varitek's home run wasn't the result of a "grinding" at-bat as much as a 2-0 fastball from James Shields that caught enough of the outside corner for the captain to chase and connect. Varitek's previous at-bats, over the past several games, were more the result of a grind, as he tried to find a pitch to hit but couldn't convert. He had worked deep into the count in both of his previous at-bats on Saturday, but he flied out to left with two on and two out in the second inning before grounding out to first base in the fourth.

Heading into the sixth inning on Saturday, Varitek was 0-for-14 in the ALCS, with two walks, five strikeouts and just three balls put in play out of the infield. He was left out of the lineup for Game 4 in favor of Kevin Cash, who caught knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. One night later, in Game 5, Sean Casey pinch-hit for Varitek in the midst of Boston's game-tying rally in the eighth inning.

That might explain the relative surprise that Varitek's shot gave to some of the Rays and why Shields decided to challenge the Red Sox's captain a bit after missing the corners on his first two pitches.

Been there, done that
Six times a team rallying from 3-1 to 3-3 has taken the series in seven games, most recently the 2007 Red Sox. Boston is the only franchise to rally from multiple 3-1 deficits (1986, 2004, '07) to win an LCS.
Series
After Gm 4
Gm 5
Gm 6
Gm 7
'85 ALCSTor., 3-1K.C., 2-0K.C., 5-3K.C., 6-2
'86 ALCSCal., 3-1Bos., 7-6Bos., 10-4Bos., 8-1
'96 NLCSStl., 3-1Atl., 14-0Atl., 3-1Atl., 15-0
'03 NLCSChi., 3-1Fla., 4-0Fla., 8-3Fla., 9-6
'04 ALCSNYY, 3-1Bos., 5-4Bos., 4-2Bos., 10-3
'07 ALCSCle., 3-1Bos., 7-1Bos., 12-2Bos., 11-2

"Fastball down and away, 2-0 count -- [I was] just trying to get a strike," Shields said. "That's the type of guy you don't expect to hit home runs off you, so you've kind of got to be aggressive a little bit, and he got a great bat on it."

When he did, it was a glimpse of the Varitek power of old, a line drive that carried all the way over the fence in right field to break the Red Sox out of a 2-2 game.

The reasoning for the Red Sox's reaction involved more than the scoreboard.

"It's awesome," starting pitcher Josh Beckett said. "You know he wears a 'C' on that jersey for a lot of different reasons, but none more important than how much respect everybody in that clubhouse -- including players, coaches, upper management -- has for him. You know, we're always pulling for the guy, but it was huge for him to do that."

To Varitek, though, helping Beckett gut through five effective innings with less than optimal stuff was just as important. That's what makes Varitek work so well as a catcher. It's also what makes him work so well as a leader for the Red Sox.

"We'll take runs any way we can get it," Francona said, "but by that means and by who hit it, it was not just a big run, it was a huge run. The way it happened, and as hard as he's worked, it meant a lot to everybody."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.