Red Sox

Saltalamacchia ready for a fresh start with Red Sox

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Saltalamacchia ready for a fresh start with Red Sox

By SeanMcAdam
CSNNE.com

HOUSTON -- When the Red Sox take the field for their regular season opener Friday afternoon at The Ballpark in Arlington, a look around the diamond could fool you into thinking that you're watching an All-Star team.

Indeed, of the nine position players, six have made All-Star teams and four have won Gold Gloves. In fact, the Sox are so deep, two of their four extra players have been selected to All-Star teams and won Gold Gloves at their positions.

Everywhere you look, the Red Sox have experienced, established, and accomplished players.

Then there's Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

At one of the game's most critical positions, the Red Sox have entrusted a player with just 200 major league games to his credit, now playing for his third organization.

Jason Varitek, who has caught more games than anyone else in franchise history, has been made his backup. Victor Martinez, the No. 1 catcher for the last season and a third, was allowed to leave via free agency.

Some might see this as a huge gamble. The Sox, after all, have a mostly veteran pitcing staff, one of the better rotations in either league and the club is the heavy favorite to win the pennant and reach the World Series.

Some, but not the Red Sox.

In Salty, they trust. And Saltalamachia seems grateful for their confidence.

"I'm definitely ready to grab it and go,'' he said recently as the season opener drew closer. "I want to take this opportunity. I've said that in the past, but this is like the opportunity.''

Since being drafted in the sandwich round, 36th overall, in 2003 by the Atlanta Braves, Saltalamacchia has been ticketed for stardom. But he was then packaged (with Neftali Feliz and Elvis Andrus) to Texas in exchange for Mark Teixeira.

In an organization crowded with other young promising receivers (Taylor Teagarden, Max Ramirez), Saltalamacchia was to be the catcher of the future.

But then Saltalmacchia developed the "yips'' -- unable to throw the ball back to the pitcher on the mound, much less down to second base to nab would-be base stealers.

It's not an uncommon affliction that has changed some careers (two-time All-Star Dale Murphy converted to the outfield because of it) and ended others (including former Mets catcher Mackey Sasser).

Sent to the minor leagues last spring, Saltalamacchia worked to overcome the issue, which is often largely a mental block. By the time he had corrected the problem, the Rangers had moved on, trading for veteran Benji Molina and making Saltalamacchia available -- cheap -- to the Sox at the July 31 deadline.

When Saltalamacchia looks back on his career trajectory in the last year, he can hardly believe his good fortune. And he knows that, having survived the yips, he can now handle anything -- expectations, pressure -- that baseball can throw at him.

"It was rough,'' he said of the experience. "I had a rough time with that. But I've said it before, at the end, I'm mentally tougher than I've ever been. I hope nobody ever has to go through what I went through. There were nights when I went home and I was just exhausted. It drains you. You're head's spinning, spinning. It made me a better person.

"There were days when I honeslty thought I was going to retire. I thought I was done. I was at my all-time low as far as my baseball career was concerned. I was thinking about changing positions, all kinds of stuff. So, yeah, there are times you're never going to forget. But looking back, it was all about mental toughness.''

A year later, Saltalamacchia is with a new team, ready for a new start, with the full backing of the organization. Though the Red Sox expressed an interest in Russell Martin in December, they never wavered in their belief that Saltalamacchia could handle the No. 1 catching duties.

This spring, his career-threatening affliction conquered, Saltalamacchia feels reborn.

"Exactly,'' he said. "I've never had more fun playing baseball than I am right now. It's fun again. The guys on this team make it so much fun. We're all friends. We have each other's back. Nobody judges anybody. If someone falls, we pick each other up.''

Saltalamacchia hinted that wasn't always the case in the Texas organization.

"There, it was like, 'You might make the team if you don't lose your job.' It was always something negative. Here, it's so positive. It's 'Do what you have to do to get ready. We're behind you 100 percent.' That's something that every player needs. It's hard to explain, but it feels good to have people in your corner, especially with what's expected from this team.

"So for them to say, 'We know you're good. We see it.' . . . It's almost like the past few years, I forgot that at times that I am a good player. You forget that sometimes when you get put in certain situations. So I'm definitely happy and excited. It just feels good. Having the confidence of the team honestly helps us be better players. Nobody realizes that we're humans, that we go through the same stuff everyone else does in our daily lives. So it's nice to have someone in your corner who supports you.''

It's not just the front office, the manager and the coaching staff which trusts him. The veteran pitchers also have expressed support for him.

"As far as the tools go,'' said Josh Beckett, "he's got the tools. That's something the Red Sox have seen basically since I've been here. He's someone they've always wanted and you can't really question their scouting, whether it's amateur or pro, they've done a pretty damn good job."

Saltalamachia spent several weeks last winter working with catching instructor Gary Tuck, who coached him on his footwork, positioning, release and game-calling. It was like a post-graduate course in catching that sped up Saltalamacchia's development even before spring training began.

"I was a lot more prepared,'' Saltalamacchia said. "I hadn't worked with anybody before and to work with Tuck, the guru, it was great. It was something I needed to get where I am right now. Coming into spring training, if I had to do all that stuff, it would be a lot tougher. Coming in, I was above and beyond where I normally would be. I got to work with the best for two months.''

Beyond Tuck, Saltalamaachia has another catching resource in Varitek, who has unselfishly tutored him since last summer, knowing that he was grooming his successor.

Varitek's influence is unmistakable to some of the veterans.

"He's got the Captain to look at and think, 'That's how I want to be,' '' said Beckett. "Everyone is like, 'We want you to be exactly like him -- I don't care if you literally are exactly like him. If you like the same foods . . . everything.' We don't care because we know how that's worked for Tek.''

"I think he's going to be fine. He's got someone he can go to on a day-to-day basis and ask 'What do I do with this?' or 'How do I handle this?' He knows he's going to get a straight answer and know it's going to be a damn good one, too.''

Beckett has noticed Saltalamachia being more assertive, more confident in his dealings with pitchers this spring.

"He's always been kind of outgoing,'' said Clay Buchholz. "But knowing that he's going to be the guy, he's kind of coming into his own.''

"He doesn't fall into patterns,'' said Beckett, ''which is the one thing you want to avoid. Everybody here kind of calls their own game. He's just putting down suggestion fingers. A lot of times when a catcher overthinks things, you fall into patterns. He doesn't do that.''

Varitek, who was drafted in the first round twice and was named the best college catcher of the 20th century by Baseball America, insists that Saltalmacchia has "more talent than I had at that age,'' and has little doubt that his protege will succeed.

But most important, perhaps, is that a year after he bottomed out and fell into a baseball abyss, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, with some help, believes it, too.

Sean McAdam can be reached at smcadam@comcastsportsnet.com.Follow Sean on Twitter at http:twitter.comsean_mcadam

MLB will institute rules to pick up pace, with or without players' agreement

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MLB will institute rules to pick up pace, with or without players' agreement

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Major League Baseball will change rules to speed games next year with or without an agreement with the players' association.

Management proposed last offseason to institute a 20-second pitch clock, allow one trip to the mound by a catcher per pitcher each inning and raise the bottom of the strike zone from just beneath the kneecap to its pre-1996 level at the top of the kneecap. The union didn't agree, and clubs have the right to impose those changes unilaterally for 2018.

Players and MLB have held initial bargaining since summer, and MLB chief legal officer Dan Halem said this week he would like an agreement by mid-January.

"My preferred path is a negotiated agreement with the players, but if we can't get an agreement we are going to have rule changes in 2018 one way or the other," baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said Thursday after a quarterly owners' meeting.

Nine-inning games averaged a record 3 hours, 5 minutes during the regular season and 3:29 during the postseason.

Corey Kluber beats Chris Sale for American League Cy Young

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Corey Kluber beats Chris Sale for American League Cy Young

Max Scherzer heard his name and thrust his arms in the air, shouting and smiling big before turning to kiss his wife.

Corey Kluber, on the other hand, gulped once and blinked.

Two aces, two different styles - and now another Cy Young Award for each.

The animated Scherzer of the Washington Nationals coasted to his third Cy Young, winning Wednesday for the second straight year in the National League. He breezed past Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, drawing 27 of the 30 first-place votes in balloting by members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

Kluber's win was even more of a runaway. The Cleveland Indians ace took 28 first-place votes, easily outpacing Chris Sale of the Boston Red Sox for his second AL Cy Young.

Scherzer yelled "yes!" when his award was announced on MLB Network, a reaction in keeping with his expressive reputation. He showed that intensity often this year, whether he was cursing under his breath like a madman during his delivery or demanding - also with expletives - that manager Dusty Baker leave him in the game.

Just a little different than the pitcher they call "Klubot." Kluber was stoic as ever when announced as the AL winner. He swallowed hard but otherwise didn't react, only showing the hint of a smile moments later when answering questions.

Not that he wasn't thrilled.

"Winning a second one maybe, for me personally, kind of validates the first one," Kluber said.

Scherzer's win moves him into rare company. He's the 10th pitcher with at least three Cy Youngs, and among the other nine, only Kershaw and Roger Clemens aren't in the Hall of Fame.

"That's why I'm drinking a lot of champagne tonight," Scherzer said.

Scherzer earned the NL honor last year with Washington and the 2013 American League prize with Detroit.

"This one is special," he said. "When you start talking about winning three times, I can't even comprehend it at this point."

Scherzer was 16-6 with a career-best 2.51 ERA this year. The 33-year-old righty struck out a league-leading 268 for the NL East champion Nationals, and in an era noted for declining pitcher durability, he eclipsed 200 innings for the fifth straight season. He had to overcome a variety of ailments to get there, and Washington's training staff was high on his thank-you list.

"Everybody had a role in keeping me out on the field," he said. "I'm very thankful for all their hard work."

Kershaw has won three NL Cy Youngs and was the last pitcher to win back-to-back. He was 18-4 with a league-best 2.31 ERA and 202 strikeouts. This is his second runner-up finish. Stephen Strasburg of the Nationals finished third.

Kluber missed a month of the season with back pain and still easily won the AL award over Sale and third-place finisher Luis Severino of the New York Yankees. Kluber led the majors with a 2.25 ERA, and his 18 wins tied for the most in baseball. He added to the Cy Young he won with the Indians in 2014 and is the 19th pitcher to win multiple times.

The 31-year-old Kluber was especially dominant down the stretch, closing out the season by going 11-1 to help Cleveland win the AL Central. He and Minnesota's Ervin Santana tied for the major league lead with five complete games - nobody else had more than two. Kluber also led the majors with 8.0 wins above replacement, per baseball-reference.com.

Kluber and Scherzer both had rough outings in the playoffs. Kluber gave up nine runs over two starts in an AL Division Series against the Yankees, and Scherzer blew a save in the decisive Game 5 of an NL Division Series against the Cubs.

Scherzer said he couldn't even watch the League Championship Series, although he did tune in for the World Series.

"That will eat at me this whole offseason," he said.

Voting for the awards was completed before the postseason began.

The final BBWAA honors will come Thursday when the MVP awards are announced in the AL and NL.

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