CHICAGO - Jarrod Saltalamacchia was hitless in his last 17 at-bats with six strikeouts and had never batted cleanup in any of the 404 major league games he had played in his career.
So with the Red Sox needing a victory on Saturday night to avoid sinking deeper into last place, who better to bat fourth against the Chicago Cubs than a cold hitter who had never done it before?
“Sometimes crazy times ask for crazy measures,’’ manager Bobby Valentine said after Saltalamacchia’s two-run homer helped the Sox to a 4-3 victory.
Valentine actually did have a motive. He saw the lineup as a way to boost Saltalamacchia’s bruised confidence.
“I think he’s been hitting the ball really well and hitting into lousy luck,’’ Valentine said. “He was dragging his head a little and I thought that was a way to make him understand that I believe in him.’’
Saltalamacchia nearly drove in three runs, but David Ortiz was thrown out at the plate trying to score from first on a double.
But after Ortiz walked in the fourth inning, Saltalamacchia drove a splitter from Jeff Samardzija over the ivy-covered wall in right field for his 12th home run.
“It felt good to have a little confidence and hit in the four-hole,’’ said Saltalamacchia, who hit 16 home runs all of last season. “I was comfortable.’’
Saltalamacchia also did a fine job handling the pitching staff as Jon Lester (4-4) and three relievers held the Cubs down, outside of a three-run homer by Luis Valbuena in the seventh inning.
Scott Atchison got the final out of the seventh inning before Vicente Padilla and Alfredo Aceves (16 saves) each went an inning. The bullpen has gone 9 1/3 innings without giving up a run and has allowed two in its last 21 innings.
The Sox are 3-2 on a trip that ends Sunday night with Franklin Morales coming out of the bullpen to get the start in place of Josh Beckett, who went on the disabled list before Saturday’s game.
Rookie Will Middlebrooks added an RBI single for the Sox in the sixth inning off reliever Randy Wells. What proved to be the winning run scored in the seventh inning as Mike Aviles doubled to right field and scored on a single to center by Scott Podsednik.
Podsednik was 2 for 4 and is 11 of 26 over the last six games. He is hitting .390 in 18 games since being called up from Triple A Pawtucket.
“He has been doing something every day to help us win,’’ Valentine said.
Lester was one pitch away from one of his best outings of the season.
The lefthander faced only 22 batters over the first six innings, scattering four singles and striking out seven. Two of the hits came with two outs in the sixth inning, bringing the occasionally dangerous Alfonso Soriano to the plate. He lined to third, right into the glove of Middlebrooks. But the ball had so much topspin that it came out and the third baseman fumbled it for a second.
Soriano stood at the plate and, by the time he started running, Middlebrooks had plenty of time to recover and throw to first. Soriano probably would have been thrown out regardless, the ball was hit so hard. But the crowd of 40,766 at Wrigley Field booed loudly. Soriano got it again when he jogged out to left field. Friendly confines? Not with their team losing on a humid night.
With the Sox up, 4-0, Jeff Baker started the bottom of the seventh inning with a double down the line in right field. Lester got pinch hitter Tony Campana to ground to second for the first out. But he walked Wellington Castillo, a rookie catcher with 29 at-bats this season. Lester got ahead, 0 and 2, but could not put Castillo away, walking him on the ninth pitch. Lester then threw a high fastball to Valbuena and he drove it into the bleachers in left field for his first home run as a Cub.
Saltalamacchia and Valentine felt the walk threw Lester off stride. Lester disagreed, saying he pitched carefully to Castillo with a lefthander on deck and a base open. He preferred to face Valbuena, who had struck out in the fifth inning.
“[Valbuena] put a good swing on my pitch, which wasn’t a very good pitch,’’ Lester said.
Lester allowed three runs on seven hits in his 6 2/3 innings with the one costly walk and eight strikeouts.
“[I] threw 102 pitches and one was a mistake. It’s still frustrating,’’ Lester said.
The Sox benefited from several nice defensive plays. Dustin Pedroia saved a run in the first when he snagged a line drive off the bat of Starlin Castro and turned it into an unassisted double play to end the inning.
Daniel Nava, who entered the game in the eighth inning, caught a sinking liner from Darwin Barney that the umpires talked about and let stand as a catch. Then Middlebrooks started a 5-4-3 double play to end the game.