Injured left knee forces Varitek to DL

Injured left knee forces Varitek to DL

BOSTON -- The Red Sox will have their mettle tested for the next several weeks as they'll endure life without catcher and captain Jason Varitek, who is expected to undergo surgery Thursday morning to repair a partial tear of the meniscus in his left knee.

The team said no timetable can be set on Varitek's absence until the surgery is performed, and the extent of the damage is surveyed.

The Boston Globe reported that Varitek will miss four to six weeks of action, which in the best case, would put the team leader back on the field by Sept. 1.

"He's our leader, a guy that we look to win games for us," said Red Sox outfielder Gabe Kapler. "We're gonna miss him, but he's going to be back sooner than people expect him to be back because he's Jason. He's going to work ... and he's going to be quick."

In a span of 48 hours, the Red Sox lost both Varitek and right fielder Trot Nixon (strained right biceps muscle) to the disabled list. And the timing of the injuries was bad -- to say the least -- as they occurred right as the July 31 trading deadline was expiring.

Doug Mirabelli will take over as the starter, and veteran Ken Huckaby was promoted from Triple-A Pawtucket to serve as the backup.

"It's something that, obviously as a team, we didn't want that to happen," said Mirabelli. "We can't change that, and I'm excited about the opportunity to go out there and play."

The Red Sox enter this stretch without Varitek while tied with the Yankees for first place in the American League East. In a way, what the Yankees have done without Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui might be able to serve as a bit of inspiration for the wounded Sox.

Varitek has been an indispensable cog for the Red Sox since assuming primary catching duties for the club in 1999. Known for his ability to play through all kinds of ailments, this is just the second time the Red Sox have lost Varitek for an extended period of time. The first was 2001, when Varitek dove for a foul ball and fractured his right elbow, sidelining him for the final four months of the season.

This time around, the Red Sox hope Varitek will be back for the stretch run. But his loss -- no matter what the length is -- will sting.

"He's the leader in here, he's the captain," said second baseman Mark Loretta. "Knowing Jason, I know he'll be around, I know he'll be in everybody's ear doing whatever he can even though he's not playing to keep everybody motivated and on the same page."

Varitek is considered the leader of the pitching staff and is renowned for his preparation for each game. He is also a switch-hitter with power, and typically hits in the No. 6 spot of the batting order. Though he was having a down year offensively (.244 average), Varitek had produced 11 homers and 50 RBIs.

During the second inning of Monday night's game, Varitek landed awkwardly on second base and was limping. He caught the top of the third inning but Mirabelli pinch-hit for him in the bottom of the inning.

Though Varitek obviously aggravated the knee on that one play, manager Terry Francona said that the knee been bothering the two-time All-Star catcher for a while. Mirabelli noted after Monday's game how Varitek had been wearing knee-savers the last few days.

Not to be overlooked was a play from Saturday's game against the Angels, when Varitek was on the receiving end of a tough collision when he gathered a throw from Manny Ramirez and tagged out a hard-charging Mike Napoli. Replays show that Napoli forced Varitek's leg left to twist upon contact.

"I don't think that helped," Francona said of the play with Napoli. "And then [Monday] night, rounding second, you could see where he really aggravated it."

The Red Sox have little choice but to rally around Varitek's loss, and make sure they remain in contention when he returns.

"He's certainly important, I mean that's why they put that 'C' on his jersey," Francona said. "I think that we're good enough where we'll overcome things like this. This will give us a chance to prove that we can overcome some adversity and be a good ballclub."

Mirabelli, with the exception of the first month of this season when he was with the Padres, has been Boston's backup catcher since June 2001. At that time, he was acquired because of Varitek's fractured elbow. Just like five years ago, Mirabelli will rely heavily on Varitek's expertise.

"His presence is huge here," Mirabelli said. "For me, just the support that he can give me and some leadership. ... He has been in there every day, he's been in the grind and he knows these teams. I'm going to fall on him a lot."

The Red Sox have a quality replacement in Mirabelli, who is a solid defensive player with a strong arm. Mirabelli has the ability to hit the ball out of the park on occasion, though he's struggled with the bat (.181, three homers, 14 RBIs) this season.

"We feel like Dougie is capable of handling the pitching staff very, very well," Kapler said. "I think everyone in this clubhouse believes that Dougie can step right in and get the job done."

"Losing anybody as a core player is tough," said center fielder Coco Crisp. "Jason, he's the leader of the ballclub and the pitching staff. There's no substitute for him. But we do have Dougie and Dougie is a veteran guy, smart and a good ballplayer. He'll do a good job."

The Red Sox are going to need everyone to chip in a little more until Varitek and Nixon return.

"Injuries are a part of this game. It's tough on a team, no doubt about it," Mirabelli said. "We've got two big guns out right now in Trot and Jason as far as everyday guys, let alone with our starting rotation. ... That's why they build this team for the bench guys to be able to step up and fill in until the big guys can get back."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.