Commentary

When Ortiz went down, his teammates stepped up

Originally Published: July 25, 2008
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

In the next week, some contenders will take out zero-interest, subprime balloon second mortgages by trading promising prospects in search of that one powerful but aging slugger who just might possibly, maybe, if everything goes right, oil prices stabilize and Jupiter aligns with Mars, help the team reach the postseason so it can then lose the Division Series in four games.

And then there are the Red Sox. They could make a trade, as well, but their biggest move likely will be calling up a 32-year-old designated hitter from Double-A Portland. Just in time for a three-game series with the Yankees, David Ortiz returns Friday night from a minor league rehab assignment and eight weeks on the disabled list due to a partially torn tendon sheath in his left wrist.

[+] EnlargeJ.D. Drew
Paul Jasienski/Getty ImagesJ.D. Drew made life without Ortiz a little easier by hitting .337 with 12 homers in June.
"Getting him back is like making a big trade at the deadline," Boston's Sean Casey said. "He just sets up the whole lineup. He's such a major threat in the middle of the lineup and he's such a great clutch hitter. Getting him back is a big upgrade for us.

"I think we've weathered the storm pretty well. A lot of guys have really stepped up. We've used the draft, and me and some other guys have been able to get some at-bats. It's been a good team effort. But it shows you what a great hitter he is. Basically, it took an entire team to replace him."

Kevin Youkilis (.331 and 33 RBIs since Big Papi went on the DL), Dustin Pedroia (.377, 36 runs) and Mike Lowell (.351 with 25 RBIs in June) all hit well in Ortiz's absence, but what really helped keep the Sox winning was the contribution from an unexpected source. J.D. Drew hit .337 in June with 12 home runs, 27 runs, 27 RBIs and a 1.310 OPS, and he kept hitting in July to earn his first spot on an All-Star team. He was the All-Star Game MVP and earned a profound new respect from Red Sox fans.

"J.D.'s performance was key," Lowell said. "His month of June was ridiculous. He basically put up David numbers."

Still, Lowell said, "We've probably been so-so. That David's been out and we're still right near the top of the division -- we have to be happy with that."

The Red Sox were 34-24 (.586), in second place and one game behind Tampa Bay when Ortiz went on the disabled list. They enter Friday's game 60-43 (.583) and in second place by one-half game. In other words, they hardly missed a beat. They would have been better if it hadn't been for a bad weekend in Anaheim when they scored eight runs and were swept by the Angels, extending a perplexing road record that is 16½ games below their home pace. The Sox are averaging about 4.3 runs per game on the road and 5.9 at home. Some of that, of course, is due to playing their home games in Fenway Park, but it also is due to poor situational hitting; the Sox are averaging nearly the same number of hits on the road as at home but scoring 1.6 fewer runs per game.

Dustin Pedroia
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesDustin Pedroia kept hitting in Ortiz's absence, posting a .321 average, second-best in the AL.
"There are times when we haven't driven in runners from third," manager Terry Francona said. "When you're one run better than the other team, no one really asks about that. When you're one run under, you can think of a lot of things that didn't go right."

No wonder, then, that Francona says the impact of Ortiz's return "depends on how everyone else hits. We're certainly getting a dangerous hitter back in the lineup. It's not that I haven't given it any thought, but you kind of don't look ahead to things before they get here. We'll certainly accept him back, though."

Yeah, they'll probably be able to find a spot in the lineup for a guy whose flair for the dramatic prompted owner John Henry to present him with a plaque that officially declared him the greatest clutch hitter in team history. The question is how well Ortiz will hit as his wrist continues the healing process. He hit just .198 with five home runs in April, then batted .318 (1.026 OPS) with eight home runs in May before injuring his wrist.

"He started off kind of slow, but he started hitting and getting on base in May," Lowell said. "Hopefully he can come back and be the David he's been the last four or five years, and that will be a nice boost for us."

And then all they'll have to worry about is how long it takes Manny Ramirez's knee to get better. Ramirez missed Boston's extra-innings victory over Seattle on Wednesday to rest his sore right knee.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com