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August 29. 2013 10:18PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Solid Salty in line for a big payday

BOSTON -- Jacoby Ellsbury has been a star for the Red Sox, both this season and in the past. And with his contract set to expire at season's end, plus super-agent Scott Boras peddling his services on the open market, the center fielder's future has long been a focus.

But, in the background, there's another Red Sox regular who's about to become a free agent after becoming something of a fixture with the club — and who is putting together a fine season that figures to complicate what already promised to be a complex, multi-factorial decision for Boston's brass.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia may not be doing it at the top of the order or with the same flashiness that Ellsbury features when he's at his best. His agent isn't Boras; it's Laconia native and UNH grad Jim Munsey. And his next deal isn't going to come anywhere near the nine figures Ellsbury could command in his forthcoming contract.

Saltalamacchia has, however, emerged as one of the game's top offensive catchers over the past couple of campaigns, putting up particularly impressive numbers this year despite being forced to carry a heavier-than-expected load behind the plate — at first because of a head injury to backup David Ross, but more recently because his bat has become almost indispensable in the lower half of the Boston lineup.

That was apparent again Wednesday in the eighth inning of a 3-3 game, when Saltalamacchia battled his way back from a 1-2 count and lifted the seventh pitch from Tommy Hunter high off the Green Monster. Two batters later, Mike Carp singled him home, and the Sox went on to win for the 20th time in their final at-bat this season.

Beyond being clutch, the two-bagger was Saltalamacchia's 35th of the year — giving him the most on the team that leads the American League in that category, moving him up to fifth in the AL individually, and putting him behind only Carlton Fisk (39 in 1978) and Jason Varitek (39 in 1999) on Boston's all-time single-season list of doubles by a catcher.

Saltalamacchia, who also singled Wednesday night, entered Thursday with a hit in 12 of his last 13 games — with seven doubles, nine runs batted in and a .347 average — and with that stretch his on-base plus slugging had climbed back up to .801. Only 27 American Leaguers have an OPS that high or better this year in at least 400 plate appearances. Only four of those are catchers.

And while that's well behind the pace the Sox backstop set last season en route to 25 bombs, his .273 batting average and .342 on-base percentage were both about 30 points above the AL average for the position.

Those numbers support his manager's suggestion that Saltalamacchia is a better hitter this year than he was last.

"You look at (his) willingness to hit the pitch where it's located rather than going in, looking to sell out and drive a pitch no matter where it is on the plate," John Farrell said. "The home run totals might be down a little bit, but he's a more dangerous and more complete hitter with the numbers he's putting up right now."

Farrell had Saltalamacchia right back in his lineup Thursday night, starting his stalwart for the 29th time in 37 games since the All-Star break, even with the Orioles throwing the left-handed Chris Tillman and Saltalamacchia worse from the right side.

That was due not only to his offensive production but also to the trust Saltalamacchia has earned as a receiver. With him behind the plate this season, Sox pitchers had through Wednesday posted a 3.88 earned run average, which is down about a run from last year's 4.84 and by far the lowest of his three seasons as Boston's primary catcher.

He's still below-average as a thrower, having thwarted only 19 of the first 96 steal attempts against him, but at age 28 he's established himself as more than capable of handling the position. That used to be something of a question; in order to get his bat in the lineup, he played some first base when he was rising quickly with the Braves, then when he was traded to Texas as part of a swap for Mark Teixeira.

But now he's undoubtedly a catcher. A good one. And this winter, some team will likely pay him handsomely to be its catcher for a while to come. Saltalamacchia says he'd like that to be the Sox, with whom he's become a leader in every sense.

And with whom, like Ellsbury, he's earned a nice payday.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His email address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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