|Trusty at second base, Dustin Pedroia was a demon at the plate before the All-Star break. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)|
ANAHEIM, Calif. - David Ortiz intended it to be shtick - Big Papi as Mr. Olympia, striking classic bodybuilder poses for a hostile audience in New York that a day later would snarl instead of smile at Jonathan Papelbon on an All-Star red-carpet ride transformed into a gantlet of bile.
But while Ortiz was just having some fun, there was a message there that shouldn't be lost on the rest of the American League as play resumes following the All-Star break.
The team with the second-best record in the American League to the Angels, a team scoring runs at a greater clip than any AL team except the Rangers, a team that ranks third in the league in home runs, and a team that has bludgeoned opponents by five or more runs 18 times this season, is about to become stronger with a trading deadline acquisition that will likely trump anything its rivals summon in response.
And general manager Theo Epstein doesn't even need to find a trading partner.
Tonight in Pawtucket, R.I., Ortiz is scheduled to begin a weeklong rehab assignment designed to have him ready to rejoin the Red Sox a week from tomorrow in Fenway Park. Just in time, coincidentally, for the next visit by the New York Yankees, who spent the break wondering where they were going to find another bat to compensate for a possible season-ending knee injury to Hideki Matsui and a disabled Johnny Damon. Richie Sexson? Barry Bonds? Yankees GM Brian Cashman wasn't stoking the speculation, but he wasn't ruling anything out, either.
J.D. Drew made Ortiz's nearly two-month absence tolerable by morphing into one of this season's best players, validated by his selection as All-Star MVP Tuesday night in Yankee Stadium. Meanwhile, Ortiz spent two days taking batting practice with his fellow Stars, hitting balls into the upper deck. You didn't need a doctor to tell you that that partially torn tendon sheath in Ortiz's left wrist is healing nicely. You could tell just by the degree of Papi-ness that had resurfaced in Ortiz. The gloom has lifted, though manager Terry Francona said he never had to deal with a "woe is me" component during Ortiz's recovery.
This is not to say that the wrist will not be an ongoing source of discomfort, or that Ortiz overnight will start crushing balls in his customary manner.
But just having Ortiz back in the middle of the order will lengthen a lineup that showed it not only could survive his absence, but thrive.
It starts with Drew, whose $70 million contract, a lightning rod for disaffected fans last season, is seldom mentioned during a season in which he ranks third in the league in on-base percentage (.417), is third in slugging percentage (.572), and is second in OPS (combined on-base and slugging, .984). He is on a pace to hit 30 home runs, drive in 100 runs, and walk close to 100 times.
"I've always had confidence in my ability," Drew said after becoming the fourth Sox player to win All-Star MVP honors, joining Pedro Martínez, Roger Clemens, and Carl Yastrzemski.
"We've still got a long ways to go. But this is definitely a good night."
But one player is not solely responsible for a league-leading OBP (.356) and a slugging percentage that is second (.451), even without Ortiz.
Kevin Youkilis leads the team with 44 extra-base hits, is outslugging Manny Ramírez (.552 to .518), and has just three fewer home runs (Ramírez 18, Youkilis 15). Small wonder that the Braves asked for Youkilis when the topic of Mark Teixeira was broached.
Dustin Pedroia came into the break as the team's hottest hitter, batting a ridiculous .455 in his last 20 games (40 for 88), scoring 22 runs while knocking in 15 during that span. After his 17-game hitting streak ended Friday against the Orioles, he responded with two-hit games Saturday and Sunday. Pedroia plays every day (93 starts in 97 games), is second in the league in runs, has made just five errors at second base, and has become an even greater galvanizing presence in the clubhouse than he was as a rookie. The latest to come away impressed was Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who when he wasn't entertaining Francona with stories at the All-Star Game delighted in cutting up with Pedroia.
Mike Lowell has shown no slippage as a run producer - he has had four four-RBI games and in his last 53 games has knocked in 46 runs, while still playing Gold Glove-caliber defense. And Ramírez, despite more games in which he is made to look ordinary (82 whiffs at the break), is still a formidable presence (60 RBIs) in the middle of the lineup.
And the rookie, Jacoby Ellsbury, with a league-leading 35 stolen bases, has introduced the component of speed, a weapon Francona has been unafraid to wield, the Sox stealing 78 bases, second in the league.
The All-Star break is traditionally viewed as the season's midpoint, but the Sox, whose season-opening trip to Japan in March feels like a lifetime ago, are well into the second half of their schedule; they have just 65 games left after going 57-40. They spent 63 days in first place, but never opened more than a 3 1/2-game lead. Just before the break, they fell five games behind 2008's surprise team, the Tampa Bay Rays, but in the span of a week, they reclaimed the top spot, winning five of six while the Rays were losing seven in a row.
How the Sox won last week is instructive. Twice they scored 10 or more runs; in three other wins, they held the opposition to one run twice and shut them out in the other. "One message we hopefully sent to them is that we'll always be here," Papelbon said. "We're not going to go away. They probably knew that."
Sox starting pitchers are 42-24 with a 3.73 ERA, and a case could be made that Jon Lester (no-hitter, two shutouts, a staff-leading 125 innings), was the first-half ace. Not that there was any shortage of competition. Daisuke Matsuzaka, despite being tied for the league lead in walks with 57, is 10-1. Tim Wakefield has run off nine quality starts (six innings or more, three or fewer runs) and in his last start was better, Francona said, than he's ever seen him. Josh Beckett hasn't owned hitters the way he did last October, but he is still averaging 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings, the fourth-best ratio in the league.
There are issues. The bullpen has lost more games (16) than it has won (15), and the bridge to Papelbon (28 saves) has been only intermittently steady. Hideki Okajima was knocked around and misplaced his confidence, and the jury remains out on Manny Delcarmen and Craig Hansen as a tandem that can pitch you into October. The kid, Justin Masterson, is being groomed to help in the pen, and considering Epstein felt compelled to trade for Eric Gagné last summer when Okajima was lights out, chances are he'll be looking for reinforcements again this trading deadline.
Jason Varitek is enduring the worst batting slump of his career, a problem with no easy remedy. The Sox also will have to make do for six weeks without Julio Lugo, although Lugo's season was a bust and it also will give them a chance to take an accurate measure of Jed Lowrie as a potential replacement.
But despite the glitches, the Sox are on a pace to win 95 games, and the circus strongman is in the wings.