Salty's fine seasoning

BOSTON -- He was a beardless 20-year-old with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans when he was named the Carolina League's No. 1 prospect, ahead of such future major leaguers as Nick Markakis, Hunter Pence, Gio Gonzalez and Anibal Sanchez.

This is what Baseball America wrote about him at the time:

"At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, the switch-hitting catcher drew comparisons to Joe Mauer -- more for his size than his defensive prowess -- but is more along the lines of Jason Varitek.

"He's got more of a chance to be Varitek to me," an American League scout said. "The size, the strength, the power are all there."

It is seven years later, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the man who replaced Jason Varitek behind the plate for the Boston Red Sox, has just launched another long home run into the seats to the right of the center-field triangle in Fenway Park, just missing the advertising sign that promises free furniture for a whole lot of folks if it's struck after July 21.

It did not travel as far as the 466-foot home run he hit onto Ashburn Alley in Philadelphia 11 days ago -- the longest home run by any Sox player since mythical strongman Wily Mo Pena hit one 470 feet five years ago.

And, having come early in a 6-3 loss to the Detroit Tigers on Thursday night, it lacked the drama of his two-run pinch-hit home run against the Rays on Saturday, the first walk-off home run of his big league career made even more special because Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk threw out the ceremonial first pitch, with Salty on the receiving end.

Still, this was Saltalamacchia's fifth home run in his past 10 games, sixth in the month of May, and 10th of the season, more than any big league catcher.

The Red Sox have played 51 games, meaning Saltalamacchia is on a pace to hit 32 home runs this season.

No Sox catcher has ever hit 30 home runs in a season. Only two have hit as many as 25: Fisk, who did it twice (26 and 25), and Varitek (25). And only Fisk was as young as the 27-year-old Saltalamacchia when he did it.

Only seven catchers anywhere since 1990 have hit as many as 25 home runs when they were 27 or younger. A name on that list? Mauer, the other player to whom Saltalamacchia was compared seven long years ago.

"He's turned a big corner," manager Bobby Valentine said this week. "In the last couple of weeks, I've seen a player turn into an All-Star -- an absolute player who you can count on, who's got it. He understands what's needed out of him and he's delivering it."

What we are witnessing, then, are:

(1) Promises kept, and (2) Another reminder that the gestation period for a big league catcher often lasts longer than one required for other players.

Saltalamacchia said before Thursday's game he was unaware that Valentine had launched his All-Star campaign.

"I stopped reading a lot of things after Texas," he said, alluding to a trying term with the Rangers, where he was hurt a lot, developed a throwing problem and ultimately lost the confidence of the people who thought he was the centerpiece of the package they'd gotten from Atlanta when the Braves, the team that drafted him, traded him for Mark Teixeira.

"I try not to get into that, you know," he said. "I don't want to be getting mad at people. Go out there and play the game."

But he wasn't about to turn down the compliment.

"Obviously, it feels great," he said. "You play this game to be the best you can. The fact that some guys recognize that, guys with a lot of experience in this game, a lot of accomplishments in this game, to see what I've done, to see how hard I've worked to get where I'm at, for them to start putting me in that category feels great."

Especially when it was just a year ago that people were openly questioning whether Theo Epstein had guessed wrong about Saltalamacchia as Varitek's ultimate successor. On May 5, Saltalamacchia was still hitting below .200 (.197). It wasn't until 10 days later he hit his first home run, one that barely reached the front row of the right-field seats in Yankee Stadium, his first home run in 121 big league at-bats and nearly two years.

And with the team off to a slow start, there were questions, too, about how he could possibly compare to Varitek defensively, and in-game preparation and pitch-calling.

Patience, people, patience. Saltalamacchia hadn't practically invited bullpen coach Gary Tuck to move in with him during the previous winter -- the two worked out on a daily basis for two months in Florida -- then continued to work with Tuck daily on drills, twice a day, during the season, just to fail.

"I definitely think a catcher is the toughest position to jump into the big leagues," he said. "It's not easy to do. I think for me, Boston having that belief in me, having that mind frame that 'we know what we got, we want this kid to play, if he plays he'll show what he can do,' that meant a lot.

"Being in the big leagues, period, is not easy. A lot of people look at it and say, 'You should be doing this, that and another thing. It's not easy. There's a lot that goes into it. Not just the physical, but the mental, the media, different personalities. So it's a big accomplishment when you do well. It shows you're doing things right."

And for all that Saltalamacchia is producing at the plate, he has strayed little from the mantra practiced by Varitek for the better part of 14 seasons in Boston. Whether or not he remains this hot at the plate, a catcher's first priority is the care and feeding of his pitching staff.

That, too, Saltalamacchia noted, is not something that simply comes overnight.

"Talking with Jason about it last year, that comes from caring," he said. "You got to care about people. Everybody wants to win, but there's a process, and there's a process to me getting better, so I've got to have that same process with other people that they had with me.

"With my pitching staff, it's not going to be all of a sudden, 'Salty's been doing well, let's trust him, let's believe, let's do whatever he says.' No. it's a trust factor that goes on and on and carries, something I'm building up, and that comes from caring about somebody."

His pitchers, he believes, have figured out how much he cares that they succeed. Relationships are being formed. Learning is taking place, both ways. The staff, after a horrific start, is having success. And Valentine is promoting his catcher as an All-Star.

"In the long scheme of things," Saltalamacchia said, "the fact people are mentioning it means I'm doing my job. Which is ultimately what I want to do, do my job."