Healthy, Ortiz's drive is to resume status as a power broker article page player in wide format.
By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / April 6, 2009
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There is freedom in his swing. No worries that, on a checked swing or an awkward cut, the pain and clicking will return. David Ortiz feels healthy, feels ready, and despite his stated concern about the lack of another true power threat to hit behind him in the Red Sox lineup, Ortiz has backed off. He knows he can be the player he always was, no matter who is hitting behind him, no matter how many times he walks.

That is, as long as there is one piece in place that wasn't there for most of last season: "Just be healthy, man," Ortiz said. "I know how to hit. I hit before. That's something you don't forget. It's a totally different situation when you go to the plate thinking about if this swing, if I swing right now my hand is going to hurt. It's too much thinking. Just go out there and see the ball and hit it."

So while Jacoby Ellsbury often has been referred to as the player who makes the Red Sox lineup go, it's Ortiz who brings the heat. There isn't a next-level power threat in this lineup other than Ortiz, though the team does have four other players who could hit 30 home runs. Ortiz was always the batter who made pitchers quake.

Then came that swing in Baltimore last May 31. He felt pain. He wouldn't return to the lineup until July 25, and wouldn't be pain-free and worry-free until the start of spring training this season. His numbers tumbled, and he got skittish at the plate. He couldn't carry the team the way he had so many times before.

But as the Sox prepare to play the Rays today at Fenway Park, weather permitting, to open the season, here Ortiz is, ready to take back his statistics and his place in the minds of opposing pitchers.

"I'm sure he doesn't want to hit [.264] again with [89] RBIs and [23] home runs, even though for a lot of guys they'll take that," hitting coach Dave Magadan said. "He's set a very high standard for himself. The fans, his teammates, there's expectations there. If anybody can handle expectations, it's him, 'cause he's come through so often for this team.

"He's a guy that's hitting in the middle of our lineup. He's going to get some opportunities to drive in runs.

"If he's healthy and he's in the lineup, I have a real good feeling that he's going to have a big year for us. He's got to be healthy, and that's not something we have control over. But if he's in the lineup and he plays 155 games, he's going to put up the numbers."

Sure, his numbers last season weren't what they had been. But had he played in 147 games, his average over his previous five years with the Sox, his numbers extrapolate to 99 runs scored, 120 RBIs, and 31 homers. Down, to be sure, but not that much. However, it must be acknowledged that Ortiz, at 33, is another year older.

So the offseason of rest and recovery helped. Gone this spring was the hesitancy in his swing. Gone was the worry that the next cut would mean another injury.

"I think he swings the bat now knowing if he doesn't hit a ball it's not because of his wrist," said manager Terry Francona. "Hitters are always dealing with issues, timing, things like that, swinging at strikes, getting pitches they can handle. Last year, there's also the issue of swinging knowing that you're going to have some clicking. I think it's human nature to not be at full strength. We knew that and he dealt with it and we dealt with it.

"Now I think it's more of him competing, as opposed to competing and thinking while he's doing it."

Reports have been positive. From his swing lately to his weight loss to his personality in the clubhouse, which rarely varies.

"He looks very good," third baseman Mike Lowell said. "I think you see that whip in his bat, driving some balls, hitting some home runs in spring training is a great sign for us. He's a huge part of our lineup and when he goes well, it seems like everyone else follows him and continues to do that. He's one of the most important pieces for us. So it will be a really good sign if he gets off to a good start and can maintain that."

But it hasn't been entirely smooth so far. Though Ortiz came to camp swinging free and easy, without the "carefulness in the swing, the afraid to kind of let it loose" feeling, as Magadan put it, the World Baseball Classic put a hitch in his training.

Like other players coming back from the WBC, Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia specifically, Magadan said Ortiz was "long to the ball" when he returned to camp. He needed to return to his routine, to get settled, before he started to look right at the plate again.

"They get to a point where they're kind of searching for things," Magadan said. "When David came to spring training and got into the day-to-day grind of spring training, getting his routine down, he started feeling better about his swing. [Yesterday] he probably took his best BP that I've seen the whole spring. I think it's been a gradual buildup.

"He's a veteran guy. He knows what he's got to do to get ready. I think physically he feels pretty good and I think over the last week we've worked to get him to where the swing is where he wants it to be. I think [the BP session] was a good indication of how he feels."

According to Ortiz, and judging by the baseballs smacked around Fenway Park, that would be good. Ready, really, to begin again. Ready to understand what he needs to do this season, and how he needs to do it.

"This season's going to be a season that I've got to be patient," Ortiz said. "I know that the calls are going to be tough with me. I saw some of that in spring training. They're going to pitch you carefully. They walk you, they don't care. Just got to be patient, wait for my pitch. Whenever I get it, going to try to hit it."

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