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Dan Shaughnessy

Lowly Ortiz is hitting rock bottom

Center fielder Coco Crisp was on the ball in the first inning, hauling in a deep fly by the Yankees' Bobby Abreu. Center fielder Coco Crisp was on the ball in the first inning, hauling in a deep fly by the Yankees' Bobby Abreu. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / April 12, 2008

It is the bane of existence for any hitter. It is when Murphy's Law meets Newton's Law of Gravity. It is when your batting average sinks 20,000 leagues under the sea, when you're living south of the Mendoza Line.

It is the batting slump. It is where David Ortiz lives in the second week of April, 2008.

These are uncharted waters for Big Papi. He's lived a charmed life in Red Sox Nation. He is the sultan of swing and he's earned his position as the most dangerous hitter, the most beloved Sox player of the modern era. He came here from Minnesota in the spring of 2003 and was platooned with Jeremy Giambi in the early days. He soon directed his agent to ask for a trade.

And then he blossomed into the most feared clutch hitter in baseball, a slugger of Ruthian proportion. He was Yaz-like when it mattered and there was no way to pitch to him.

Now he is in a dreadful slump. He is 0 for 13, and 1 for 25. He is 3 for 39 on the season. Among those with enough at-bats to qualify, he owned the second-lowest batting average (.077) in the majors after last night's game. He is lower than low, lower than Rob Lowe, lower than Barry Manilow.

Last night's Yankees starter, Chien-Ming Wang, didn't need to look at his book on David Ortiz. Wang sends his monthly mortgage payment to Big Papi. Ortiz owns the righthander. Going into last night's game, Ortiz was 15 for 30 against Wang with 4 doubles, 2 home runs, and 6 walks.

None of it mattered. Ortiz's slump continued. He took a called third strike in the first. Then he hit into a double play in the fourth. In the seventh, he hit a feeble grounder to first and barely took the trouble to run down the line. He was on deck when Wang retired Dustin Pedroia to close out New York's 4-1 win.

Unless you've been there, it's just about impossible to explain what is happening to Big Papi at this hour. Maybe you felt like this if you lost your ability to make the short putt. Or maybe you found yourself stuttering when speaking in front of a crowd. If that's happened, then you know.

Hitting, putting, and public speaking are similar this way: the harder you try, the worse you are likely to do. As soon as it gets into your head, you are beaten. This is part of the beauty of Manny Ramírez. The Man-Ram knows nothing of slumps. Every at-bat is a clean slate. No baggage. No lugging an 0 for 10 up to the plate.

The same cannot be said for the lovable Papi. He's got an injury - his right knee (meniscus) was surgically repaired after the end of last season. He had trouble getting into his crouch much of last year and now it appears the mended knee is troubling him again.

But this is more. This is bad luck and bad form.

Things have not been right for the big guy all season. He failed to hit a home run in Florida. That seemed strange. Then he went to Japan and immediately hit a homer in a game that didn't count.

He went 0 for 7 in the two games that did count in Japan. It was frustrating. He hit a one-hop bullet into short right that was gloved by the A's second baseman for an easy 4-3. He hit two monstrous foul pops that would have been in the stands anywhere other than Oakland and the Tokyo Dome. Both were caught. More frustration.

Against Detroit, he almost hit a grand slam. He thought he had it. But the ball was caught in right. The elements always work against lefthanded hitters at Fenway in April. It's downright discouraging.

Umpires are another matter. Ortiz got rung up on a tough check swing against the Tigers. He complained loudly and he was probably right. Big Papi grouses about a lot of calls. He gets away with more than most hitters. His star status and general disposition serve him well in this area, but a guy can only stand so much. You can see the calls are getting to him now.

Most recently, he's stopped giving interviews to every person with a notepad or microphone. A Herald columnist questioned him for taking a trip to New York to do a commercial when the Sox had a day off Monday. He had nothing to say before or after last night's game. Very unPapi-like. But this cannot be an easy time for him.

It will all end soon, no doubt. He'll check his swing, accidentally make contact, and dump an "excuse me" single into left. Then he'll turn on a 3-and-1 fastball and hit it halfway to Mars. Life will return to normal. The planets will realign. He will rule the batter's box again.

In the meantime, Big Papi struggles and stews. And we all wait for the breakthrough moment when he makes somebody pay.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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