Ortiz not letting his slump get him down
BOSTON -- David Ortiz is in pretty good spirits for a guy whose swing looks as if it's buried under two feet of concrete these days.
Here we are, 13 games and one rubber match against the New York Yankees into the season, and Ortiz, Boston's go-to guy, has already been mercy-benched by manager Terry Francona. The .070 batting average is bad enough. But when Francona looks out and sees one weak at-bat feeding into the next -- and a frustrated, defeatist mind-set taking root -- he figures it's time for an intervention.
So Ortiz took a seat and watched the frivolity as the Red Sox beat the Yankees 8-5 at Fenway Park on Sunday night. He saw nine pitchers combine to throw 336 pitches and issue 14 walks in a game that bordered on chaotic until the bullpens restored order. On a brighter note, Boston's temporary 4-5-6 combination of Manny Ramirez, Kevin Youkilis and Sean Casey reached base eight times in 12 plate appearances and raised havoc all night long.
Will Ortiz return to his customary designated hitter spot Monday night when Boston begins a two-game series against the Indians in Cleveland? It ain't necessarily so. Between the regular season and the playoffs, Ortiz is 1-for-12 against Cleveland starter Jake Westbrook, who happens to be doing very well right now.
"We'll see,'' Francona said. "I wanted to give David a chance to breathe [Sunday night]. I'll sit down and talk to him a little bit more on the plane.''
How pronounced is Ortiz's April funk? Let's just say he'd look right at home in a Detroit Tigers uniform. While Andruw Jones, Jim Thome, Miguel Cabrera and lots of other noteworthy big leaguers are riding the Interstate in the early going, Boston's beloved Big Papi would be happy with a place on the Massachusetts Turnpike.
Even Ortiz conceded that Sunday's breather might be a necessary step toward helping him reclaim his former identity.
"I'm just trying to figure things out for a minute so I can go back to being Big Papi again,'' Ortiz said. "You see this in baseball, where a guy will have a hard time, go home, chill out and come back with a fresh mind. It happens to everybody. I always do what Terry tells me to do. I'm an employee.''
While an obsessive-compulsive hitter might spend an off day studying video, pestering the hitting coach for tips and swinging in the cage until his hands bleed, Ortiz is more the pragmatist. He believes that slumps are more a mental than a physical phenomenon, so why exacerbate the problem by piling on the mental clutter?
On a frigid Sunday night at Fenway, Ortiz stood in the dugout wearing a do-rag, blue Red Sox parka and red gloves that looked like oversized oven mitts, and cheered on his teammates as they took two of three in their weekend series against the Yanks.
"I've never had a full day off,'' Ortiz said before the game. "I'm just going to chill.''
Ortiz has four straight All-Star appearances and Silver Slugger awards in his portfolio and five top-5 MVP finishes since 2003, so Boston fans and the local press are conditioned to seeing nothing but the best from him. As a result, his bad start has been sliced, diced, analyzed and dissected ad nauseam.
One theory making the rounds is that Ortiz's surgically repaired right knee has robbed him of his foundation and made him tentative at the plate. He declines to use that as an excuse.
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"If you go through the time I've been here, I never stand the same way,'' Ortiz said. "We have scouts always watching what we do, what we're chasing and not chasing, what we're hitting and not hitting. I always try to figure out a way to stay away from any trouble.''
Even Ortiz's travel schedule has come under scrutiny. After the Red Sox ran a spring gauntlet from Florida to Japan to California to Toronto before returning home, Ortiz flew to New York on a recent off day to film a commercial for Vitaminwater. Boston Herald columnist Steve Buckley -- while raving about Ortiz's fan-friendly nature and skills as a goodwill ambassador -- observed that the big guy might have been best served in this case to just say no.
Even when Ortiz isn't hitting a lick, he plays into the storyline. With Ortiz struggling badly and Mike Lowell on the disabled list, Boston's opponents have no compelling reason to challenge Manny Ramirez these days. So when Yankees manager Joe Girardi committed the equivalent of a capital crime Saturday, pitching to Ramirez with first base open and two runners in scoring position, he was pilloried for it.
He's gonna walk, he's gonna get hits and he's probably gonna hit 40 home runs. Superstars are normal, they're human and they go through streaks. But at the beginning of the year, it looks way worse than the middle of the year.
Of course, a little perspective is required here. The Red Sox have 13 games in the book and 149 left to play. And Ortiz has all of 43 at-bats to his credit, so one good series can rocket him over .100 and all the way past the Mendoza line.
"He's gonna walk, he's gonna get hits and he's probably gonna hit 40 home runs,'' said Boston infielder Kevin Youkilis. "Superstars are normal, they're human and they go through streaks. But at the beginning of the year, it looks way worse than the middle of the year. David Wright didn't hit a home run in April last year, and how many did he end up hitting?''
The answer: 30.
At least Ortiz's travails haven't cost him his sense of humor. At one point during his pregame give and take with the media Sunday, a reporter told him how the Yankees had just dug up a No. 34 Ortiz jersey planted in the cement in the team's new ballpark in the Bronx.
Ortiz chuckled, and joked that he might try to have it planted back.
"You have to give me more of a specific location,'' he said. "I'm going to have to call my people in New York to take care of it when everybody's sleeping.''
That's an intriguing thought. But in the end, Ortiz might be better off spending his time trying to rediscover the old Big Papi. Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.
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