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Could Christian Vazquez become Red Sox’ catcher of the future? 08.07.13 at 7:07 am ET
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Christian Vazquez

Christian Vazquez

A familiar scene unfolded late last month at Fenway Park. It was a picturesque July afternoon, and after lineup introductions and the national anthem, the home team took to the field for the top of the first.

Settling in his spot behind the plate was a stocky catcher with a big, red “33” on his back.

But no, it wasn’t Jason Varitek. It was Christian Vazquez, a 22-year-old backstop for Double-A Portland who is heralded for his defense but whose bat remains a work in progress.

He was in town with the Sea Dogs, who played the Nationals’ Double-A affiliate, the Harrisburg Senators, in the annual “Futures at Fenway” game. For the 2008 ninth-round pick, it was a landmark event.

“It’s my first time playing here,” Vazquez said, noting he had visited for a physical when he signed in 2008 and again during the Red Sox’ rookie development program in January. “It’s fun, wearing the 33 [like] The Captain.”

The question now is whether that opportunity to start behind the plate at Fenway represented a future harbinger.

Vazquez finished the contest 1-for-4, his lone hit a grounder deep in the shortstop hole that he beat out. He didn’t throw out any runners, but he didn’t the chance to try, either. None of Harrisburg’s eight baserunners tested the arm of the man who has cut down half (41 of 82) of would-be stealers in 2013.

While that day wasn’t spectacular for Vazquez, it wasn’t terrible, either — much like his season on the whole. He is hitting .277 with a .366 OBP, .394 slugging mark and .760 OPS, a bit better than his career numbers of .260/.342/.394 and .736 in six minor league seasons.

According to Portland hitting coach Rich Gedman, Vazquez has made strides this year, part of which can be seen in his even strikeout-to-walk ratio. He has fanned 37 times and drawn 37 free passes, a far cry from his 79 strikeouts and 48 walks in 2012.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Clay Buchholz: ‘I felt good all the way through’ 04.14.13 at 6:05 pm ET
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Clay Buchholz was in full command against Tampa Bay on Sunday at Fenway Park. (AP)

Relaxation can be a wonderful thing for a starting pitcher. For Clay Buchholz it was the key to nearly repeating history.

Buchholz had the most dominant of his three outstanding outings so far this year, holding the Rays hitless for the first seven innings, allowing just two hits over eight scoreless frames and improving to 3-0 in a 5-0 win Sunday at Fenway Park. Buchholz lowered his ERA to 0.41 and has allowed just one earned run in 22 innings this season.

“Well, I felt pretty relaxed,” Buchholz said after Sunday’s masterpiece. “It’s an easy clubhouse to be relaxed. Everyone jells really well. I didn’t feel much different than any other day.”

But he admitted after his 109-pitch gem over eight innings that it was a lot more relaxing than the last time he seriously flirted with a no-hitter at Fenway.

“A lot more [relaxed] than the other time it happened [Sept. 1, 2007]. I was basically going out every inning after every pitch, telling myself to make a pitch and don’t worry about anything else. I felt good all the way through.”

Buchholz explained why was it so different than Sept. 2007, when Jason Varitek all but held the rookie right-hander’s hand through a dismantling of the Baltimore lineup.

“Because I had captain behind the plate and I didn’t want to shake him off because I was scared of him,” Buchholz said.

Skipper John Farrell had a good feeling from the start on Buchholz, who had 99 pitches after seven innings and was starting to approach that red-line area for pitchers early in the season.

“He had four pitches working for strikes,” Farrell said. “I think he struck out guys on four different types of pitches. After the seventh inning, the pitch-count is climbing. I certainly didn’t want to be the guy to walk out there with him with a no-hitter in tact. But on a day when we needed a starter to go deep in a game, he did that for us. An outstanding outing on his part. He made some key pitches, particularly in that sixth inning where things started to get a little extended. It was about a 22-pitch inning for him. He continued to make outstanding pitches throughout the course of the day.

“I think think the only thing we can speak to is the feel in the dugout. And after the fifth inning, you start to get a sense with each out recorded. Obviously, the crowd was getting into it.”

Farrell was never forced to make to the ultimate tough decision, hinting after the game that he would not have allowed Buchholz to get into the high-120s in pitch count.

“I don’t think we’ll ever know, will we?,” Farrell said with a laugh of relief.

The biggest key Sunday was not just first-pitch strikes but what he was using all day to get ahead of the Tampa Bay batters.

“I was able to throw first-pitch curveballs for strikes a lot today,” Buchholz said.

But that may have led to his undoing in trying to throw the second no-hitter of his career. Kelly Johnson opened the eighth inning by taking a curve for strike one. Then Buchholz went back inside to the left-handed hitting left fielder. The pitch didn’t quite get in on the hands enough and Johnson was able to get around, breaking his bat in the process, and dump a clean single over the head of Mike Napoli into right field.

“The second one I threw him it was basically supposed to be a purpose pitch, just to make it fall right on top the plate and see if we get a swing. I didn’t quite get it there and he was able to put the bat on it. It was just one of those things.

“I haven’t even seen it. When I released it, it felt like it was going to be a good pitch but obviously, I left it close enough to the zone if it wasn’t in the hitting zone, for him to get a bat on it,” Buchholz said.

“I know Kelly, I’ve played against him, played with him. I know he’s a good fastball hitter, so we stuck with our game-plan of getting ahead with some breaking balls trying to keep him off of it,” Buchholz’ battery mate Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “Earlier in the game we were pounding him in. He hadn’t really looked too good on that curveball so I think that’s why we wanted to go back-to-back with it. Tip your cap, he broke his bat and it fell in.”

The Tampa Bay outfielder was just looking for something to work with. Read the rest of this entry »

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Jason Varitek ‘learning a lot’ as Red Sox catching instructor 02.21.13 at 7:59 am ET
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FORT MYERS, Fla. — Former Red Sox catcher and captain Jason Varitek spoke Wednesday about what it means to him to be back in the organization as a catching instructor. Varitek is serving as a special assistant to general manager Ben Cherington, working with major-league and minor league catchers during spring training.

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Jarrod Saltalamacchia: ‘It feels good’ to have Jason Varitek back in camp 02.19.13 at 3:54 pm ET
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Special assistant Jason Varitek throws to Red Sox catchers Tuesday in Fort Myers. (Mike Petraglia, WEEI.com)

FORT MYERS, Fla. — The irony of the situation was rich Tuesday.

Jason Varitek, the former Red Sox captain, was in front of the pitcher’s mound on Field ’2′ throwing pitches to catchers, observing how they called defensive signals, received the ball and threw to second and third base. Manager John Farrell and new bullpen coach Dana LeVangie was a close observer.

For 14 years, from 1998-2011, Varitek was the backbone of the Red Sox battery as its primary catcher. Now he wants to impart wisdom.

“It feels good, having a guy like him that you respected growing up and got to play with him,” Jarrod Saltalamacchia said Tuesday. “It’s nice having him out there because he’s a guy that I’ve gone to in the past and I can still go to him. He’s there but you don’t feel like he’s stepping on anybody’s toes. He’s there for them, which is special.”

Saltalamacchia joined Varitek on the bench as Ryan Lavarnway was the starting catcher for the last game of Varitek’s career, Sept. 28, 2011, when the Red Sox lost their season finale and their season in Baltimore.

After taking 2012 off to spend time with his family, Varitek is back as a “special assistant” to general manager Ben Cherington. On Monday it was Pedro Martinez – another “special assistant” – showing his willingness to give back to Red Sox Nation. On Tuesday, Varitek appeared on the practice fields.

“I would say it’s very similar,” Farrell said. “You’ve got two very successful players who have been leaders in their own right at their respective positions. They’ve achieved team success as much as anybody has ever played in this game, particularly in this uniform. They’re both so well respected and I think they’re so respective of the city of Boston, the organization, they want to give back. They have a great opportunity to do just that. I know that Tek, even in his last couple of years, Salty would pick his brain a lot. And now Tek has the ability to do that on a broader scale. Most importantly, they both want to give back, and I think it’s a great thing.”

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Jason Varitek not a likely candidate to replace Gary Tuck 01.30.13 at 3:06 pm ET
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Jason Varitek is not expected to join the Red Sox coaching staff this year (AP)

There will come a time, and it may be in the near future, that former Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek can commence his big league coaching career with virtually his pick of jobs. But for now, even though the Red Sox have a newly created need for a bullpen coach and catching instructor on their big league staff with the sudden retirement of Gary Tuck, it does not appear that Varitek is being considered — or even wants to be considered — for a full-time return to uniform, according to a major league source.

Varitek retired because he wanted to spend time with his family, and while the 40-year-old embraced the opportunity to return to the Sox as a special assistant to GM Ben Cherington, that job seemingly represents the work-life balance that Varitek would like to maintain for now. There’s little question that a coaching future is available to him, but for the present, he’s likely to remain in his role.

That, in turn, means that the Sox must work to find a replacement for Tuck with less than two weeks before the official reporting date for pitchers and catchers. Given that compressed timetable, while the Sox had yet to contact candidates about interviews as of Wednesday afternoon, the team plans to select from an internal pool of candidates already within the organization.

Three stand out as fairly obvious:

Chad Epperson spent the last two years as the Sox’ roving catching instructor, a capacity in which he’s worked with the likes of Ryan Lavarnway and Jarrod Saltalamacchia (as well as minor leaguers such as Dan Butler, Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart) for years. Last year, when Tuck had to take a leave of absence for personal reasons, Epperson joined the big league staff as his fill-in. He also knows a number of the team’s homegrown pitchers, having coached or managed players like Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Daniel Bard, Ryan Kalish, Felix Doubront and Daniel Nava while they were coming up through the system. Read the rest of this entry »

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John Farrell: ‘There are many, many players eager to re-write the story’ of 2012 01.25.13 at 7:48 am ET
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Even from a distance, John Farrell knew how disastrous 2012 was for the Red Sox. And he knew many of the players on the roster even before he accepted the job of Red Sox manager.

In the three months since, he’s gotten a strong indication from those he’s spoken with that the team is eager to get to work and make amends.

It wasn’t long ago – 2010 to be exact – that Farrell was Terry Francona‘s pitching coach, giving daily advice to the likes of Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. He knows very well the tendencies of Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz.

Still, he was asked Thursday at the Boston baseball writers’ annual dinner, does he know what he’s getting into?

“Yeah, and I think we have a very good roster,” Farrell said. “I like our team as it stands today. We haven’t even gotten to spring training yet. But not only the talent that Ben and the staff brought in but the people they are. From Day 1 of being named to this position and talking to players throughout the offseason, there are many, many players that are eager to re-write the story that took place a year ago, and all are looking forward to getting on the field in Fort Myers.”

Farrell also knows the organization has brought back star players like Jason Varitek and now former ace pitcher Pedro Martinez to offer their advice as organizational assistants.

“A lot of experience,” Farrell said. “A lot of great pitching experience. He and Tek being back in our organization, in roles where they can they afford and give back to the young players that are coming through the system right now, and really even at the big league level, to give advice. This is a unique place, where you have the ability of having two guys who have had the success they’ve had to have them accessible to our players. … it’s going to be an asset for all of us.”

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Jarrod Saltalamacchia takes stock of a looming milestone 09.13.12 at 1:34 pm ET
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Jarrod Saltalamacchia is second among big league catchers in homers this year. (AP)

Jarrod Saltalamacchia is a team-first catcher who measures his success not in his own statistical line but instead the Red Sox’ wins and losses. By that taken, he understands that the 2012 season has been a grave disappointment.

On a personal level, too, Saltalamacchia has his quibbles. His season has been divided into distinct and seemingly unrelated chapters. He has gone through spells in which he has been as ferocious a hitter as any on the Red Sox, and at other times, he’s struck out in staggering volume.

“I haven’t been consistent like I want to be,” said Saltalamacchia, now hitting .232 with a .293 OBP, .480 slugging mark and .773 OPS. “We’re trying to win games, so personal accomplishments go out the window, trying to do too much.”

And so Saltalamacchia could not revel in what was an extraordinary night on Wednesday. He went 3-for-3 with a double, triple and his 24th homer of the season, along with a walk. It was the first time in his career that he had three extra-base hits in the same game, and the second time in his career that he reached base every time he stepped to the plate while taking at least four plate appearances.

Moreover, the homer edged him closer to what would represent a somewhat extraordinary milestone for the catcher. With 24 homers this year, Saltalamacchia now is within two of the franchise record for homers in a season by a catcher. Only Carlton Fisk (who hit 26 twice, in 1973 and 1977) and Jason Varitek (who hit 25 in 2003) have gone deep more times in a catching season than Saltalamacchia — who missed the previous three games due to back spasms — has done this year.

And so as much as he is inclined to downplay personal accomplishments, Saltalamacchia cannot help but take some pride in the fact that he is enjoying such select company. After all, Fisk is a Hall of Famer and Varitek is someone whom Saltalamacchia reveres as the embodiment of catching excellence.

“I think it would be awesome. You look back at Tek’s legacy, Fisk’s legacy — Fisk was a good hitting catcher, and Tek won two World Series, four or five no-hitters. To me, stuff like that is more an accomplishment for catchers rather than the home runs, but when you’re able to break records like that, you’re excited,” said Saltalamacchia. “It would be a cool accomplishment. I’d be excited. There are not too many times in your career when you get to accomplish certain milestones and break records. At any point, if you’re able to do that, it’s great.”

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