THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

No. 1 problem is in No. 3 spot

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By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / May 20, 2009
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Still bummed about the stunning, sudden departures of the Bruins and Celtics? Imagine how David Ortiz feels.

No one needed the B's and C's to keep going more than Big Papi. The longer the playoffs ran, the longer eyes were averted from his pitiful numbers. As long as Zdeno Chara and Paul Pierce were still grasping for the grail, Papi had a chance to lie in the weeds and crawl back to his feet.

Kendrick Perkins's dunks took our minds off Ortiz's funk. Hating on Scott Walker was easier than the cold reality of Papi's OPS.

But last night, there was nowhere to hide. The Bruins and Celtics had cleaned out their lockers, and the Red Sox were back home from the West Coast, and we all returned to Fenway to find out what in the name of Norm Zauchin is going on with Ortiz.

The Big Fella wasn't talking before the game. Seconds after the clubhouse opened at 3:40 p.m., WBZ's Alice Cook took the charge and was politely told, "I'll get you guys a week from now. Let me get hot."

Happily for Ortiz, his name was on the lineup card. He was back in after his three-game, clear-your-head benching in Seattle. But it didn't go well. The Sox beat the Jays, 2-1, but Ortiz went 0 for 3 with two strikeouts, dropping his average to .203.

Approached after the game, Ortiz was asked if he was going to be all right. "I'll be all right," he said. And that was that.

We hadn't seen Ortiz at home plate since that fateful Thursday afternoon in Anaheim when he went 0 for 7 against the Angels, leaving 12 men on base and striking out three times. That was just a few hours before the Bruins lost Game 7 at the Garden and the Celtics blew a chance to dust off the Magic in Game 6 in Orlando. Boston sports's Black Thursday.

Sending Ortiz to the pine in Seattle was not done lightly by Terry Francona. The Sox manager loves his veteran players the way you love your children. If Mike Timlin stopped by the Sox clubhouse to say hello tonight, Tito would probably let him pitch the eighth inning. Remember how Francona stuck with Mark Bellhorn and Coco Crisp?

Ortiz's epic slump puts Francona in a bind. The manager will do anything to avoid embarrassing one of his "guys," but he knows there comes a point where it's dragging down the entire team. It's awkward for everybody. That's why this week is so crucial to Ortiz and the Red Sox.

We have reached the critical mass. If Ortiz doesn't return to some semblance of his old self soon, the Sox are going to have to move him out of the No. 3 spot (and perhaps out of the lineup altogether), which is the last thing they want to do.

"If I said I hadn't thought about the lineup, that's not true," Francona acknowledged. "But I think our best lineup is with him hitting third. And I told him, 'If I ever decide to change that, I'll tell you first.'

"It's our responsibility not to lose patience."

Officially identified as "the greatest clutch hitter in Red Sox history," Ortiz has been Mr. Walkoff. He helped deliver two championships and made himself the face of the franchise, charming us on every step of his home run trots. Now we worry that it's over, just the way it was over for Jim Rice in 1989 when he was only 36 years old.

Francona has been in the corner office at Fenway since December 2003, and he understands the Nation's propensity to panic. He knows that this is where everything - the good, the bad, and the ugly - is exaggerated.

"People look at everything and break everything down," said the manager. "You get all the adulation when things are going well. And then . . . well, I don't know if you can have one without the other. He's pretty tired of answering the same questions."

It didn't get any better last night. Ortiz is now 1 for his last 17. He's hitting .146 since April 30. He's hitting .174 (12 for 69, 14 strikeouts) on the road. He has 27 hits and 32 strikeouts in 35 games.

This is bad. This is embarrassing. David Ortiz is only 33 years old, but he looks like he is finished, and if he remains in the No. 3 spot in Sox batting order, he could take the team down.

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

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