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ON BASEBALL

He's simply statuesque at the plate

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Commission another plaque, John W. Henry. Better yet, place a call to Armand LaMontagne. Cast Big Papi in bronze, and put the Bambino to bed, forever.

Already dubbed the ''Greatest Clutch Hitter in the History of the Boston Red Sox" by a gushing ownership troika that recently presented David Ortiz with a wall hanging declaring him as such, Ortiz is shredding the team record book and in so doing has become the single most compelling reason anywhere to watch a baseball game in September.

With 11 games left in the season, it is only a mild exaggeration to frame the American League East race as the Bronx Bombers vs. the Dominican Babe. Surely, seeing George Herman Ruth in his prime could not have been much different than watching David Americo Arias Ortiz perform down the stretch in 2005.

Ortiz hit home runs in his first two at-bats last night -- he also homered in his last at-bat Monday night, giving him three consecutive home runs in a span of seven pitches -- setting off a spasm of offense that resulted in a 21-hit, 15-2 win over the Devil Rays. The victory kept the Sox a half-game ahead of the Yankees.

Ortiz was excused early, and wasn't around after a game in which the Sox tied an American League record when four players, including Ortiz, had four hits apiece. But the tributes poured in, from all precincts, for Big Papi, who has 10 home runs this month, two more than any other player in the big leagues (Randy Winn of the Giants has 8). He has 22 RBIs, a total exceeded only by Mark Teixeira of the Rangers, who began the night with 25. Eight of Ortiz's home runs and 17 of his RBIs have come in the last nine games, a stretch in which he is batting .457.

One night after tying Carl Yastrzemski and Mo Vaughn for most home runs by a lefthanded Sox hitter in a season, Ortiz tied Jim Rice for the second-most in a season by any Sox hitter with 46. Only Double-X, Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx, who hit 50 in 1938, ranks ahead of Ortiz in Sox annals.

''He's the best I've ever seen," said third base coach Dale Sveum, who nearly lost his right arm last week in Toronto when an exuberant Ortiz pinwheeled it with a high-five after an extra-inning home run. ''I've played with Hall of Famers -- Robin Yount, Paul Molitor. I've played with Mark McGwire, Frank Thomas, Rickey Henderson. I've played and been around some of the best ever, but this guy is the best.

''He really cares about his teammates and winning so much. He holds a big load. He takes it upon himself that the other guys don't have to pick him up. He's turned into a folk hero in a small amount of time in a city that takes Hall of Famers years to grow on."

Ortiz followed his two home runs -- one of which carried into a playground area in the far reaches of center field -- with two singles, giving him six successive hits over two games. ''A gorgeous swing," manager Terry Francona said, ''from a very strong man."

Ortiz did not swing and miss until his fifth at-bat, in the sixth inning, when he finally was retired on a scorching ground ball that nearly tore the glove off the hand of first baseman Travis Lee. He was given the rest of the night off.

''I've never seen anything like what he does," Sveum said. ''I'm sure [Barry] Bonds does it, and he's never had a Manny Ramirez hit behind him, but for the most part you're talking about two peas in a pod. David hits everything. He hits velocity, he hits the best, he hits closers, he hits B.J. Ryan."

Bondsesque? Not quite, said reliever Mike Myers, who faced Bonds regularly when he was in the National League. ''He's got to get at least 60 [home runs]," Myers said, ''and 100 intentional walks a year."

But there are grounds for comparison, according to Alex Cora, who was with the Dodgers before coming to the American League.

''I've seen Barry dominate games, dominate a series, and it's getting to that point," Cora said. ''Pick your poison. He's dominating the game the way Barry does. He's squaring everything up, even the outs.

''The thing with Barry, with all the intentional walks, he gets one pitch a game and hits it. But what David is doing is so impressive.

''I know there's a lot of talk about him not playing defense, as a DH, but the way he's doing it now he should win [the MVP]."

After the Sox had lost, 8-7, to the Devil Rays Monday night, Ortiz was asked whether the club, which hasn't had a day off since Aug. 22, was showing signs of fatigue.

''I don't know," Ortiz said. ''Those guys have played a full season before. I don't know. I have no answer about that.

''I can tell you about myself. I might be tired in the morning, but whenever the day goes to 7:05, I'm ready to go. That's it. At this point of the season, you want to do whatever it takes to be ready for the one game."

No player can do more than what Ortiz is doing for the Sox this month, in a performance that may have settled a close MVP race as decisively as Vladi Guerrero of the Angels did in the season's final two weeks a year ago.

Other Sox players have had great stretch runs. Yaz, of course, in 1967, ranks as the prime example. For more recent vintage, there was Nomar Garciaparra in 1999 (.393, 9, 25), Vaughn (.356, 6, 19) and Garciaparra (.308, 6, 16) in '98, and Vaughn in '95 (.340, 7, 26), all years that the Sox advanced to the postseason. But nothing on this scale since Yaz.

The Gold Dust Twins, Rice and Fred Lynn, in 1975, their magical rookie seasons which ended with a trip to the World Series? They each hit one home run in September. Yaz, nearing the twilight of his career, had none. In '78, Yaz hit .198 down the stretch, Lynn hit two home runs while Rice kept the Sox alive with 10 home runs and 24 RBIs in September.

But Ortiz, who has nine multihomer games this season and is within two home runs of Foxx's club record for September home runs (12), is in a league of his own. And the beauty of it -- and let us pray that it stays that way -- there is not even a hint of the kind of stain that has Balco-ized Bonds. It's tested pure, and it's glorious.

''A great guy," Cora said. ''He's so humble. He lives by the moment. He's having fun with this, and it's fun to watch."

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