Ordinarily, Ryan Lavarnway would not have been in the lineup Tuesday night. Circumstances forced manager Terry Francona into having to insert him in the lineup. Jarrod Saltalamacchia took a foul ball to his collar bone while catching the previous night and was uncomfortable swinging a bat. Jason Varitek took a pitch off his knee two nights before, and was still too sore to get behind the plate. Enter Ryan Lavarnway.
Anyone who followed his exploits as a member of the Pawtucket Red Sox at McCoy Stadium this summer shouldn’t have been surprised by his two-home run offensive explosion Tuesday night. Lavarnway hit 32 home runs in 435 at-bats in the minors this year, 18 at Triple-A Pawtucket. That’s one home run every 13.6 at-bats.
Despite Saltalamacchia (.162) and Varitek (.077) struggling in September, Lavarnway had only seven at-bats this month for Boston. Francona has always shown a reluctance to throw rookies into the fire and a, sometimes frustrating, tendency to stick with his veterans despite their struggles. Prior to Tuesday, the Red Sox had a 6-19 record in September and helplessly watched their nine-game lead on the Tampa Bay Rays for the final American League playoff spot evaporate into thin air.
Desperation had seeped so deep that the Red Sox were reportedly scrambling to make a trade for a starting pitcher to start their final regular season game, or even a possible play-in game with the Rays on Thursday. Think about that for a second—taking a middle-tier pitcher from outside the organization and handing him the ball to start the final game and saying to him, “OK, go out there and save our season.” It’s not so far-fetched when you consider the Red Sox have a league-worst 5.90 ERA in September, but still a sad commentary on the state of the rotation.
When the lineups were posted prior to Tuesday’s game, desperation turned into exasperation when it was revealed Jed Lowrie (6 HR, 36 RBI, .252 avg.) would be batting cleanup in a must-win game. Not Adrian Gonzalez.. Not Dustin Pedroia. Not David Ortiz. Jed Lowrie. Not much attention was given to the name penciled in two lines below Lowrie.
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Ryan Lavarnway is widely renowned for having tremendous power-hitting potential, although his defense behind the plate has been questioned. He responded with, not one, but two home runs—the first two of his major league career. He had four RBI and very easily could have had seven had it not been for a spectacular diving catch by right fielder Nick Markakis on a blooper with the bases loaded.
Lavarnway also exhibited some stellar defensive skills. He caught Adam Jones trying to steal third base. He blocked pitches in the dirt. And he made a critical play on a slow dribbler in front of the plate in the ninth inning, throwing out a slow-running Matt Wieters. It was exactly the spark the moribund Red Sox needed.
The Red Sox survived a scary last two innings, which included another implosion by Daniel Bard, to beat the resilient Orioles, 8-7. Tampa beat the Yankees, 5-3, thanks to a 7th-inning three-run home run by Matt Joyce. That means both teams remain tied heading into game 162- the final game- of the 2011 regular season.
The question today will be whether or not Francona starts Lavarnway again if Saltalamacchia or Varitek is ready to go. Some reports today hint that Lavarnway could sit. Again, Francona, who may be managing for his job this week, is very loyal to his veterans. Some would argue—too loyal.