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Ortiz hoping to be a hit in the field

ST. LOUIS -- Here comes the tricky part. By stunning the Cardinals in the first two games of the World Series, the Red Sox showed the rest of the baseball world what American Leaguers already knew: They are one mighty tough team at Fenway Park.

Now let's see how they fare under National League rules with David Ortiz playing first base, Kevin Millar relegated to the bench, and Pedro Martinez swinging a bat at the bottom of the order where Bill Mueller, the 2003 AL batting champion, often hits.

Amid concern about the Sox committing eight errors in two games -- a World Series record -- they have little choice but to replace Millar at first base with Ortiz, who has played only three games at first since the All-Star break and only one since July 22.

"Wish me good luck," Ortiz said yesterday before the Sox tuned up at Busch Stadium for Game 3 of the World Series tonight against the Cardinals. "I'm not comfortable right now, not at all. I'm just going to try to catch whatever is around me."

But everyone, even Millar, agrees that sitting Ortiz in St. Louis would be folly with the franchise's first championship in 86 years at stake. The Big Cat, as Millar calls him, carried the team much of the regular season and the playoffs with a power surge that will endure for generations in Sox lore. After all, Ortiz and Manny Ramirez joined Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig as one of a precious few pairs of American Leaguers to hit over .300 with at least 40 homers and 130 RBIs in a season.

And, truth to be told, Ortiz is not horrible at first base, though he's no Doug Mientkiewicz, a former Gold Glover.

"I've always felt that he's got fantastic hands," said Mientkiewicz, noting that Ortiz played 34 games at first during the regular season after playing the position in the Dominican winter league. "Obviously, with him not playing every day, it's going to be different. The one thing with David, I think maybe has been his concentration level, which tends to fade in and out over a long season. But he's only going to play three games at first. He's going to be fine."

The Sox enter the night in good shape. They have not yet trailed in the Series despite their defensive lapses. They have won six straight games since the Yankees shellacked them, 19-8, in Game 3 of the ALCS at Fenway Park.

But the Cardinals are dangerous at home, perhaps even more so playing an American League team under National League rules.

"Losing our DH is a disadvantage, and we have guys hitting who haven't hit all year," manager Terry Francona said, referring to certain Sox pitchers. "We're not playing the team we put together, so, yeah, it's a little disadvantage."

However, the Sox are much better suited to playing NL ball than they were before the trading deadline, having picked up Dave Roberts, one of the top base stealers in baseball, and Mientkiewicz, a dandy defensive replacement, as well as shortstop Orlando Cabrera, who had played his entire career in the National League.

In addition, Francona and bench coach Brad Mills are well-versed in maneuvering a roster under NL rules. Francona managed the Philadelphia Phillies for four years, with Mills as his first base coach. And Mills served last year as Frank Robinson's bench coach for the Montreal Expos.

"There comes a time in the game in the sixth, seventh, eighth inning when they have two guys up in the bullpen and you have two guys up in the bullpen and things really happen quickly," Francona said. "I'm glad that I've gone through it."

As for Boston's defense, with its recent rash of errors, Derek Lowe, the pitcher who benefits most from a solid infield, expressed no concern.

"We always knew if we got to the World Series, [Ortiz] was going to play first base," said Lowe, who is scheduled to start Game 4 tomorrow. "He's going to give 100 percent, good, bad or indifferent. That's all you can ask of anyone.

"He may surprise a lot of people and go out there and make unbelievable plays. We know he hasn't been out there in a long time. You can't hold it against him. He's been working hard the last couple of days."

Lowe, like many of his teammates, believes hand-wringing over the error spree is unnecessary.

"If this was the middle of the year and something like this happened, you'd probably say, `What can you do to turn it around?' " Lowe said. "But when you're in the playoffs, your goal is to win. If you make four errors and win compared to a game where you play tremendous defense and lose, which would you rather have? We're 2-0."

Ortiz defended his overall reputation as a first baseman, despite his lack of action there this season. In fact, he pushed early in the season to play more at first base. But once Millar got hot at the plate and Mientkiewicz arrived, Ortiz's opportunities all but ended -- until tonight.

"I don't think I'm that bad at first base," Ortiz said. "It's just getting an opportunity. When you go out there once in a while and you get an error, everybody looks at you like, `Oh no, he's bad.' It's not like that." Mientkiewicz, who played with Ortiz in Minnesota, agreed that Ortiz has received a bad rap.

"David's been battling that label since he was in A ball," Mientkiewicz said. "I think baseball has a way of labeling guys to a point where you almost believe what they say. It's a tough label to break. David's fine over there." 

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