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ARLINGTON, Texas -- Contrary to first blink, things could have gone worse for Boston Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia this opening weekend.
Just flash back a year ago, when Saltalamacchia delivered a game-winning hit for the Texas Rangers in the season opener. Nothing better, right? Except that Saltalamacchia strained his upper back in that game, went on the disabled list, was sent to the minors for a rehab assignment, developed a bad case of injury-related yips, came off the DL and was optioned to the minors, never to return to the big leagues until his trade to the Red Sox last July.
Compared to that ordeal, the weekend Saltalamacchia experienced upon his return to Arlington with the Red Sox -- 0-for-10, 5 K's at the plate, watching the Rangers launch 11 home runs from behind it -- was aggravating but endurable.
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia meets with Clay Buchholz, who gave up four of the 11 home runs allowed by Sox pitchers in the Rangers' three-game sweep.|
"We've got a long ways to go," Saltalamacchia said after Sunday's 5-1 loss to Texas. "I'm not going to judge my season on 10 at-bats right now."
That won't cut him much slack, however, with the skeptics who have pointed to Boston's catching as its potential weak link. And it merely underscores the reality that the Sox player facing the most pressure at the start of the season is not Carl Crawford and his huge salary, nor Josh Beckett coming off a lousy season, nor David Ortiz trying to erase the memory of two awful Aprils.
Crawford is a proven talent. Beckett has two World Series rings. So does Ortiz. Saltalamacchia has yet to find regular big league employment since he was a heralded No. 1 draft choice in 2003. The Red Sox are giving him that chance after letting Victor Martinez walk this offseason, for which he is grateful. But this may be his last, best chance to establish himself as an everyday big leaguer, which could make anyone anxious.
Couple that with playing against the team that gave up on him, and The Edge probably could have played licks on Saltalamacchia's stretched nerves.
Manager Terry Francona noticed as much Sunday, when Saltalamacchia saw a grand total of six pitches on his three at-bats, including one apiece in his last two.
"One thing Salty does so well is work the count and swing at strikes," Francona said. "You can see how anxious he is right now. He's swinging at a lot of first-pitch strikes. He has to relax and do what he can do. Not get it all back after one at-bat."
Saltalamacchia's biggest at-bat Sunday came with one out in the seventh inning with the Red Sox trailing 3-1. The Sox already had one run in and runners at first and second after an RBI single by Crawford when Saltalamacchia came to the plate against Texas left-hander Matt Harrison.
Saltalamacchia swung at the first pitch and hit an easy fly to right field. After a walk to Darnell McDonald, Harrison struck out Jacoby Ellsbury to end the threat, and the Rangers tacked on two more runs.
"I was overaggressive," Saltalamacchia said.
Part of that came from wanting to deliver. Part of it, he admitted, was that it was against the Rangers.
"I was really amped up because it was the team I used to play for," he said. "I wanted to put good at-bats together. We were losing. I wanted to win. I was trying to get more aggressive and make something happen. I've got to learn to be more patient."
The beating absorbed by Sox pitchers this weekend -- 26 runs in three games, the 11 home runs -- only compounded his difficulties at the plate. Francona, however, absolved his catcher of any blame for that.
"Results aside, I think Salty does a very good job with the pitchers," Francona said. "Again, if the ball goes over the middle, that's the way the game is. These guys [Rangers hitters] are good enough that if you make a mistake, they're going to hit it a long way.
"A tough three-game series is not going to change our view of Salty."
Buchholz echoed that perspective.
"Put it all on the pitcher," he said. "We throw what we want to throw. He's just back there trying to make the game move along. It boils down to the guy on the mound. He throws what he wants to throw. If it gets hit, the pitcher takes full responsibility. When a starting pitcher is either in the win or loss column, we take responsibility for it. It's on us."
Three games into the season, Francona has an interesting decision to make. He played Saltalamacchia in a day game after a night game, when he might have been expected to use Jason Varitek. If Francona decides to play Varitek on Tuesday in Cleveland after the team has a day off Monday, it might look like he's benching Saltalamacchia because of a slow start, which might have the effect of placing even more pressure on the catcher. Two days off might also serve to increase the catcher's anxiety about getting a hit.
Francona has some time to make that decision, and there are other factors in play, such as getting Varitek into a game or pairing him up with Beckett, who is making his first start against the Indians.
One thing that is certain is that Saltalamacchia has a fierce defender in Varitek. The captain bared his teeth last season when he thought Martinez was the target of unwarranted criticism, and he made it clear this spring he feels just as protective of Saltalamacchia.
But in the end, Saltalamacchia alone will have to answer for his performance.
"We got these three out of the way," he said. "Hopefully we can relax and go out there and play the game."
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.