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Ortiz giving his all in these trying times

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / May 27, 2009
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MINNEAPOLIS - Before the game, I told David Ortiz, "Now don't forget. Don't get up in the first inning." He led out a howling laugh.

Hitting sixth was something he hadn't done since May 11, 2004, against the Indians. If he considered it a demotion, you wouldn't have known it by his pregame demeanor, though after the game he had a different look.

What was clear was that, with Ortiz below the Mendoza Line (.197), the Red Sox were willing to try something else. Sitting him didn't work.

Managers, players, and even yours truly will tell you that where you hit in the order shouldn't have much to do with your hitting. During the course of a game, you're going to come up in pressure situations no matter where you hit. But on this night, Terry Francona decided, after much deliberation with his coaching staff, that he was going to put Ortiz in a part of the order that was perceived as "less pressuring."

While this type of move is more psychological than anything else, it worked - at least in the first at-bat. Ortiz led off the second inning and stroked a double to right-center on a 3-and-2 pitch from Nick Blackburn. He finished 1 for 3 with a walk.

"Look, let me make something clear so you guys don't ask me the whole time about me hitting sixth," said Ortiz. "I started hitting third here a little bit after I got here. If you're hitting third, you must be swinging the bat good. The manager moved me to sixth because we got guys swinging the bat good, right? Now, I've got to work my way up, right? That's about it.

"I'm an employee. I follow orders."

It was hard to tell what Ortiz meant by that. There seemed to be some anger and some frustration with himself that it had come to this.

But hitting coach Dave Magadan saw positive signs throughout the day.

"That was probably the best BP I've ever seen him take," said Magadan. "Probably his last three or four BPs have been outstanding."

Magadan disagrees with our stance that batting order doesn't matter.

"In my opinion, yeah, it does a little bit," he said. "When you're hitting in that 3 or 4 hole, there are expectations. The guys around you are going to get on base. I think it's done maybe to relieve some of the anxiety that he's had and that frustration that he has that he's letting us down.

"We'll see what happens. He looked better tonight. He hit that ball hard to right-center."

Ortiz was amped up to start the game.

He even showed some oomph in his stride as he turned on the afterburners and slid into second base ahead of the throw on his double. It's probably just what the big guy needed, but after that, it became another night at the office. He could have gone 1 for 3 hitting third or cleanup.

"Ultimately, you only hit in a certain spot in the lineup once and then you're hitting in different situations," said Jason Bay, who has hit in a lot of different spots in the Sox order. "I think it's a good idea to just try something different. You're taking the same approach whether you're hitting second or ninth, but sometimes you're just looking for that magical something to turn things around."

Yesterday's pregame scene illustrated just how much people love Ortiz. Not only were teammates patting him on the back, offering encouragement, but the enemy was as well. At least a half-dozen Twins came over to offer Ortiz some positive words.

One of those pats on the backs and hugs came from Francona, whom I have watched closely in his handling of Ortiz. He has treated this proud man with great respect and dignity. This is why he resisted so long to take him out of the lineup and drop him in the order. He never wanted Ortiz to feel he had abandoned him or that he didn't think he'd get his stroke back.

Francona spent a long time with Ortiz near the batting cage. Although I couldn't hear what he said, it sure looked like a pep talk.

"I wanted to just make sure that he understands the respect that we have for what he's done and what we think he's going to do," said Francona. "This does not change that."

Francona's hope was that the pressure would be alleviated.

"That would be the hope, that he doesn't feel like he's got to carry the team," Francona said. " 'Cause there's times when we've said it publicly, we're going to jump on his back and let him carry us for a couple weeks. That's the kind of player he can be.

"Quite frankly, I don't want to just shove him down there in the eighth hole, almost like placing blame. I just don't want to do that. I want to help him, or at least not be a hindrance to him being hot."

And Francona particularly didn't want to make the move when the team was home against the Mets.

"To me, that's not helping, that's almost placing blame on somebody," Francona said. "I'm not going to do that. I wanted to wait till we got on the road. If I am to be accused of being slow on the trigger, I can live with that."

Last night was a small step. Whether it works or not, who knows? We thought that when he homered and doubled against Toronto May 20 he was going to turn the corner.

"When he's swinging the bat and he's hitting third, I think we're a better team," Francona said. "That's why he's hit there for the last few years, and why he started out this year. All things being equal, yeah, I think we're a better team. They're not equal right now, so we made a change."

Ortiz dressed, spoke quickly, and left. On his way out, he said, "I came to this game one day and another day I'm going to be gone. I really appreciate what people in New England think about me."

He's trying. He's really trying.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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