TORONTO -- While one future Hall of Famer, Alex Rodriguez, has rocketed this month to heights reached by only a few players, another future Hall of Famer, Manny Ramírez, has been hovering beneath the Mendoza Line, a low-rent district in which he has seldom appeared over the course of his career.
That should help explain why the Red Sox, on the eve of their first meeting of 2007 with the Yankees this weekend in the Fens, were as excited about Ramírez's first home run of the season, a game-tying, two-run blast in yesterday's 5-3 win over the Blue Jays, as the Bombers were about A-Rod's 10th home run of the month, a three-run walkoff against the Indians in the Bronx.
"That was big," said pitcher Julian Tavarez, who was watching on a clubhouse TV when Ramírez hit a changeup from Blue Jays reliever Shaun Marcum into the right-center-field seats in the eighth. "I was pulling for Manny, I was saying, 'C'mon, we got to get him going.' He hit the ball at the right time, the right place.
"I was like, 'Wow. My boy.' I just gave him a big hug and said, 'Watch out, Manny's back.' "
Winning time came courtesy of Alex Cora, the backup shortstop who turned a game-saving double play in the eighth despite absorbing a body block of dubious legality from 236-pound Lyle Overbay, then limped to the plate in the ninth to stroke a triple that knocked home pinch runner Julio Lugo. Cora scored a bonus run on Coco Crisp's sacrifice fly.
"I didn't know Alex could hit a ball that far," Tavarez said of Cora's drive to the left-center gap, both Lugo and Cora sprinting around the bases in textbook fashion.
But for all the elements that went into a Sox win on an afternoon they threw No. 5 starter Tavarez against Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay, the Blue Jays had the tying runs on base or at the plate in the ninth in both of their losses in the series.
Yesterday, as he did the night before, Jonathan Papelbon nailed down the win. After issuing a leadoff walk, he fanned two before finally getting Alex Rios on fly to right on the 10th pitch of the at-bat.
Marcum was so disgusted with the changeup he threw Ramírez with Crisp aboard on one of his two bunt singles, he said, "I think my little sister could have hit it as far, if not farther."
Given the way Ramírez had been hitting, that was almost irrelevant.
The Mendoza Line is baseball-speak for a .200 batting average, named after a light-hitting utility infielder of the mid-1970s/early '80s named Mario Mendoza. The story is told that it first came into use after Hall of Famer George Brett was quoted as saying, "The first thing I look for in the Sunday papers is who is below the Mendoza Line."
Brett -- and a lot of other people -- would be startled to see Ramírez's name parked right on .200. Coming into yesterday's game, Ramírez's average had already dipped beneath the Mendoza Line five times this season, matching the most days he's spent under .200 in any season.
In his first six seasons in Cleveland (not counting the September call-up in '93 in which he batted .170 in 22 games), Ramírez was under .200 four days. In 2004, when he led the American League in home runs with 43 and in OPS at 1.010, Ramírez spent one day with a batting average less than .300.
Ramírez was hitting .227 on May 27 in 2005 and did not hit a home run in his first 16 games last season -- but this spring was supposed to be different. When he showed up at spring training, his agents said he'd spent much of the winter hitting in a facility near his Fort Lauderdale, Fla., home.
All that extra work had little to show for it, even in a dome he's always favored. Ramírez was 1 for 9 in the series, and yesterday had grounded into a bases-loaded double play in the third inning and tapped out to third with David Ortiz in scoring position in the sixth, before unloading on Marcum.
"Huge," said third baseman Mike Lowell, who had the day off. "I mean, you knew he was going to get out of it, but to do it in a big moment, tie the game up -- you know we need him. I don't care how good you are, you want to feel good. It's not like Manny was thinking he was never going to come out of it, but you don't want to see him keep grounding out."
April averages fluctuate wildly, but when someone like Ramírez is hitting less than his weight, other players notice.
"But I mean, there's such an unbelievable track record, it's not like you're panicking," Lowell said. "You're anxious for him to finally bust out."
The Tao of Manny would have you believe he lives a stress-free existence. But the sense of relief was palpable as he pumped his fist into the air coming out of the batter's box, leaped into the arms of Ortiz after crossing the plate, then found himself catching Lugo on the fly.
The home run was Ramírez's 26th in Rogers Centre; only A-Rod, with 30, has more among Blue Jays opponents. "We've all seen Manny make one swing and get in a groove for a long time," manager Terry Francona said.
The win went to Mike Timlin, who gave up a leadoff double to Vernon Wells in the eighth, but escaped first-and-third, one-out peril by starting a double play that took both grace and grit for Cora to convert. With Timlin's throw tailing toward right field, Cora managed to find the bag and avoid Overbay, who went out of his way -- and, it appeared, out of the base path -- to nail Cora.
Second baseman Dustin Pedroia grabbed a steamed Cora and kept him from Overbay.
"It was kind of a cheap thing," Pedroia said of Overbay's slide. "He came at him pretty high. It was an unbelievable play. I was trying to calm him down. It was a huge momentum swing for us. We didn't need any other attention elsewhere. I was just trying to get him out of there."
Cora's triple was the sweetest revenge, and came after Pedroia reached on a fielder's choice, failing to bunt over Eric Hinske, who'd drawn a walk off Marcum to start the ninth. Lugo ran for Pedroia and Cora delivered off Jason Frasor, who saved the series opener.
"He got himself to third base when he'd just got whacked on a double play," Francona said. "He was limping, and he still got himself to third.
"He's a player, he's a coach, he's a leader, he's got a good attitude, he handles not playing as much as he wants to, he's a good kid. He knows how to play the game."
Gordon Edes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.