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Lavarnway's homers boost BoSox
Yale guys are supposed to crunch numbers, not crush baseballs.
But there was Ryan Lavarnway, socking two homers, driving in four runs and catching nine overwrought innings on a steamy September night — an effort that just might have saved his team’s season.
The Boston Red Sox preserved their tie with the Tampa Bay Rays atop the American League wild-card standings, and they have Lavarnway to thank. Along with his offensive exploits in Tuesday’s 8-7 triumph over Baltimore, Lavarnway received four different pitchers with aplomb, wired a perfect throw to cut down an Adam Jones steal attempt and made the game-saving defensive play on a dribbler toward first base in the ninth.
And this was the 24-year-old’s first start behind the plate in the major leagues.
Let me say that again: His first start as a catcher.
Regular starter Jarrod Saltalamacchia injured his collarbone the night before, and he’d been slumping, anyway. Backup Jason Varitek has a bum knee. So manager Terry Francona was scrambling for a catcher, and No. 6 hitter, hours before Game No. 161.
The Rays, nine games back at the beginning of the month, had pulled even the night before. The Red Sox were at mid-choke. But apparently, Lavarnway learned the Heimlich maneuver in New Haven. As a rookie playing in just his 16th big-league game, he shepherded closer Jonathan Papelbon through his most important save of the season — a 28-pitch passion play that ended with the tying run stuck at second base.
For one night, at least, general manager Theo Epstein wasn’t the most important Yalie on the Red Sox payroll.
“He played his (butt) off,” Francona said. “That was exciting. Besides what he did offensively, he ran the game. He had a lot of poise.
“We’ve seen a lot of interesting things here over the years. But that was right near the top.”
Lavarnway began the season with Class AA Portland and posted strong offensive numbers between there and Class AAA Pawtucket (.939 OPS). While his performance in the minors certainly merited a September call-up, the initial plan entailed some occasional at-bats and maybe a few innings behind the plate in a blowout or two.
The Red Sox didn’t plan on him becoming the most famous No. 60 since Chuck Bednarik. But it figures that someone born in Burbank, Calif., didn’t clam up when the bright lights turned on.
Lavarnway began preparing for Tuesday’s start on Monday night. He didn’t have enough notice to fly in family and friends for the occasion. But he had time to study Boston starter Erik Bedard and refresh his knowledge of the Baltimore hitters.
“I had to do some more homework last night,” he said.
Like I said: He’s a Yalie.
By the end of the night, though, he had become a certifiable pennant race hero. As 30 or 40 media members surrounded him afterward, he squinted into the lights for a moment before answering like he belonged.
“It definitely feels good,” he said. “It feels like I can wear the jersey with pride — a little more now that I’ve helped out and I’m contributing. That’s what I wanted to do when I got here. I didn’t want to have a September call-up that was meaningless. I’m glad I could help today.”
Boston selected Lavarnway in the sixth round of the 2008 draft, and even that might have been a gamble. While Lavarnway had put up big offensive numbers during each of his three seasons at Yale, he missed the final 11 games of his junior year because of an injury.
Lavarnway wasn’t even the first team All-Ivy League catcher that season. That honor belonged to Princeton’s Jack Murphy, who batted .220 for two Toronto affiliates this year.
“We had him evaluated pretty good but didn’t know exactly where we should take him,” Jason McLeod, then the Boston scouting director, recalled Tuesday.
He added: “Theo being a Yalie played some role.”
But this wasn’t a case of the old boys’ network in action. Baseball isn’t investment banking. Yale head coach John Stuper describes Lavarnway as the “hardest worker I’ve ever had.” Stuper still remembers how Lavarnway would put on a 10-pound weight vest to do blocking drills, and even wear it around campus.
“(He) routinely got kicked out of the weight room for being in there too much,” said Stuper, who pitched for the Cardinals in the 1982 World Series. “During his junior year, it got really scary throwing him BP in the indoor cage — really scary.”
On Tuesday, a much larger audience saw that power on display. Lavarnway tattooed a three-run homer off Zach Britton in the fourth and a solo shot against Zach Phillips in the eighth. When asked if they would have cleared the fences at Yale Field, Lavarnway quipped, “With a metal bat, they would have.”
Before Tuesday, Lavarnway felt that his big league experience was “a cross between your dream coming true and fantasy camp.” But there is nothing halfway about it now. He is more than merely part of the team. He is suddenly one of the biggest reasons the Red Sox still control their own destiny heading into the final day of the season.
Six months of drama will be decided by the next nine innings.
“It’s really good for baseball,” Francona said. “It’s not so good for my stomach. I can’t remember being that nervous in a long time.”
After Tuesday, Francona should have one less thing to fret about: He has a catcher for Game No. 162.
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