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Ortiz grooving in hot stretch

Suddenly, the heart of the Red Sox lineup that gets the Fenway Faithful jacked and pumped is more than Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez, each of whom often has filled the role of star du jour for a team that is steaming toward September.

Now there is David Ortiz. Take yesterday's 8-1 series-closing victory against the Mariners. All Ortiz did was bang out two more hits, including his 20th home run, and knock in four runs. Ortiz has four homers in his last five games.

Yesterday's two-run blast in the third inning started the offensive flow for the Sox and enabled Ortiz to match his career high for homers, set a year ago with Minnesota.

With a month left in the regular season, he is only one RBI short of his career high of 75, also set last season, and is having the type of season that has people in the Boston clubhouse smiling.

Ortiz is sorry to see the Mariners leave town. In the four-game series, he was 6 for 16 with three home runs and eight RBIs.

The 6-foot-4-inch, 230-pound Ortiz is in one of those grooves that good hitters slide into during the season. Every pitch looks like a softball, and the hits seem to keep coming -- no matter the situation, the pitcher, or the opposition.

Ortiz, tucked nicely into the No. 5 spot in the order behind Garciaparra and Ramirez, generally is facing pitchers who have worked hard to get Boston's two offensive stars out, and may be just a bit weary when Ortiz steps into the batter's box.

"I'm just having a lot of fun," he said. "I like the atmosphere [at Fenway]."

He said his performance yesterday may have been motivated by a subconscious desire to help Pedro Martinez. The Sox ace not only was coming off an unscheduled sick leave, which drew the ire of some fans who questioned Martinez's competitiveness, but he hasn't gotten as much support as usual from the offense recently.

"I guess we have had less production when Petey is pitching," said Ortiz. "I felt a responsibility [to produce] when he's pitching."

Ortiz then gave a spirited defense of Martinez.

"I just hope people in Boston appreciate him," he said. "He has to be one of the greatest in the game."

Ortiz said Martinez was still ailing a bit yesterday.

"You talk to him and you feel how bad he is feeling," said Ortiz.

"He helps this ball club all the way around," added Ortiz, who recalled a subpar performance by Martinez early in the season when some fans booed the ace. "When he was getting booed, my head spun around, and I said, `What's going on here?' "

But incidents such as that are mere speed bumps in what has been a smooth ride through Ortiz's first season in Boston. He understands how things can change.

"Not everything is going to be flowers all the time with good smells," he said. "You are going to have some problems. There has been a lot of funky stuff. But I just keep my mouth shut and try to play the game."

Which he seems to be doing better each day.

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