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Hurtin' call

He cannot single out one particular day as worse than the others. There were too many to choose from, when the pain was so incessant and insistent that Red Sox slugger David Ortiz felt he couldn't continue.

"Not so much one low point," he said in the privacy of the near-empty dugout yesterday afternoon during the Sox' final workout before they open the American League Championship Series against Cleveland tonight at Fenway Park. "Just a lot of days when I came in and said, 'Man, I can't make it today.'

"But then you put on your uniform and you play. Around here, we don't have a lot of choice."

The implication is not as it may appear. Ortiz is not suggesting anyone ever forced him to play through the torn meniscus in his right knee, which will be surgically repaired as soon as the season ends. In fact, he said, manager Terry Francona inquired about his health throughout the season, regularly checking to see when (or if) Ortiz should take a day off.

The responsibility Ortiz felt to remain in his customary slot, batting third, was self-imposed. He looks at Boston's lineup and sees a dearth of power hitters, which is why he never considered having immediate surgery when an MRI in July revealed the damage.

"A lot of people said to me, 'Why not do it now and get ready for the playoffs?' " Ortiz said. "But I ask you: Do you really think we would have made the playoffs if I did that?"

A quick glance at Boston's regular-season statistics boosts his argument. The only other player who knocked in 100 or more runs was third baseman Mike Lowell, who enjoyed a career year. Nobody other than Ortiz hit more than 25 homers. Nobody other than Ortiz came close to drawing 100 walks (J.D. Drew was second with 79).

Because Manny Ramírez was sidelined for 24 games with an oblique strain, Ortiz was often left to go it alone as the slugger. It was, at times, a lonely vocation.

"It can't always be Manny and me," Ortiz said. "Look at what the Yankees can do. [Jason] Giambi is on the bench for a couple of weeks but it doesn't matter. [Hideki] Matsui gets hurt and they can sit him, and everything stays normal. They can give Alex [Rodriguez] a day off any time. You take one of those guys out and they still maintain because they have four or five guys who can hit home runs.

"Here we can't afford to put our [power] guys on the bench.

"But I'm used to playing through things. The future is now. You never know when we are going to be here again."

Manager careful

As the Red Sox prepare to face the Indians and their vaunted 1-2 pitching punch of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, Ortiz wonders if they will pitch to him or around him when it matters. He is coming off a regular season when he drew 111 walks, tops in the league.

Ortiz led the majors with a .445 on-base percentage, batted a career-high .332, knocked out 35 home runs, and had an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of 1.066. Although it has been Big Papi's most trying year physically, it has also been one of his most productive.

"He's had a very underappreciated season," said general manager Theo Epstein. "He and A-Rod were just 1 point apart in OPS, which is a quick and dirty way to see who had the best year."

"In some respects, he's been even better this year than last," Francona agreed. "Part of what makes him special is he feels an obligation to this team. I think it's easy to misinterpret David because he always has that smile, and sometimes you forget to see how driven he is.

"He's battled this season. The knee hampered him. He couldn't be himself, couldn't generate his usual power. I wouldn't say he was embarrassed by it, but he's a proud man. It bothered him."

Ortiz had a cortisone shot to ease the persistent ache about two weeks ago. He said yesterday the medical staff advised him that eventually the benefits of that shot would wear off and he should brace himself for another one if the Red Sox advance to the World Series. Ortiz conceded that in recent days, the right knee has been "a little sore. Not as sore as before, but I'm feeling it a little.

"But I hope I won't have to get another shot," he said. "I really don't like needles."

Big Papi played in 149 regular-season games. He struggled with hamstring troubles, a banged-up elbow, and his balky knee. Epstein could tell when Ortiz was hurting because his stance would become upright, causing him to lose some of the leverage that accounts for his raw power.

Francona also learned to watch for warning signs, including when his DH became unusually somber or quiet. That was an indication the usually buoyant big man was suffering.

"When he was laboring, I'd say to him, 'David, let's get you a day coming up. How about against [Tampa Bay pitcher Scott] Kazmir?' " Francona said. "He'd say, 'That's perfect.' We'd get him through the next four or five days with him knowing a blow was coming. Now of course, you also tell him, 'David, if you can't get to that day, it's OK, we can do it sooner.' But more often than not, it worked. He'd get on the plane, maybe hurting a bit, but you could see him relax because he knew that break was coming."

Even when Ortiz was feeling right, he noted a change in the way pitchers handled him. Few if any challenged him by trying to consistently blow the fastball by him. The shift always seemed to be on. With the strength in his legs diminished because of his injury, he concentrated on spraying base hits around the park instead of locking in on the long ball. He also learned to grudgingly embrace the scorebook entry "BB."

"It's just the way it is now," Ortiz said. "If we have a man on second and two outs, it's, 'OK, bro, go to first base.' It's clear what teams are doing. They are saying, 'Don't let Papi beat you.'

"It was driving me crazy at first, especially with lefties. They weren't going to give me anything, so I was going out looking for it. I finally told myself, 'Stop chasing pitches out of the strike zone.' "

Defending his reputation

Because his power numbers were down from last season (54 homers, 137 RBIs), Ortiz was repeatedly characterized as a slugger having a "down year," a stigma that increasingly irritated him. Then, when a story chronicling his stance on steroids ran with a misleading headline, he suddenly found himself under suspicion as someone who may have used enhancements.

"There was nothing but confusion around that," he said. "I gave a reporter my views and he got it right, but some headline writer, some guy I have never seen, messes with my reputation by implying things that were never said.

"It was very upsetting to me. I've worked hard to become a dangerous hitter. To have anyone question that . . . they've been testing for steroids since when, 2003, 2004? Well, I've been hitting home runs way before that and a lot since, and my body is still the same. I don't look different.

"The people who use that stuff, I know later on it's going to come back and haunt them.

"Me? At some point, just as it happens with everyone, my prime will walk away from me. But I won't have to be afraid of what happens after that."

Ortiz said after last year, which is when he originally injured his knee after tripping on some netting at Yankee Stadium, he participated in an offseason strength program that paid major dividends. He believes that program is what has enabled him to continue to play through his injury.

Epstein concedes in hindsight Ortiz probably should have had surgery last winter. "But in the opinion of our medical team at that time, it wasn't necessary," he said. "They believed it was a condition that wouldn't get any worse. Sometime between then and now, that changed."

"I was fine last winter," Ortiz concurred. "I wasn't having the pain I am having now."

There will be no discussion when the season ends. He had a similar procedure done to his left knee in April 2002 when he played for the Minnesota Twins and recovered fully and quickly, he said.

"Of course, I'm older now," he said, his trademark grin firmly in place.

Big Papi's willingness to grind it out during this long and ultimately satisfying season has only enhanced his already favorable image in a very discerning clubhouse.

"You knew he wasn't coming out of the lineup short of them amputating [the knee]," said teammate Curt Schilling. "Dave Hollins was the first guy I played with who was like that. He fractured a bone in his hand and had surgery, and 14 days later, he was playing with the stitches still in.

"We have a lot of guys in here who have that mentality. And when [someone like Ortiz] is playing, other guys can't look around the clubhouse and say, 'I'm a little sore today.' "

As far as Ortiz is concerned, he doesn't need a day off the rest of the way. He's hit safely in 10 straight playoff games and has already rung up two postseason home runs in 2007.

"I don't like losing," he said. "And I like our chances better when I'm playing."

Jackie MacMullan can be reached at macmullan@globe.com.

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