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Tony Massarotti

Ortiz is springing to life after fall

By Tony Massarotti
June 27, 2009
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ATLANTA - Plopped in a love seat, wearing a white polo shirt and jeans with his hair closely cropped, a relaxed David Ortiz suddenly looks like the picture of summer. And as the Red Sox methodically march through the soft middle of their schedule, maybe it is more than a coincidence that some thump has returned to the heart of their lineup.

“It all depends on how Papi is swinging,’’ Ortiz said last night when asked about a solo home run that opened the scoring in a 4-1 Sox win over the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field.

A pitch he had trouble with early in the season, perhaps?

“Everything was tough to hit early in the year,’’ Ortiz cracked.

But here we are, in the final days of June, and a funny thing has happened to the gentle giant of the Sox clubhouse. Papi has his swagger back. Ortiz’s homer last night was his seventh in 47 at-bats dating to June 6, and his third in four games beginning with last Sunday’s win at Fenway Park over these same Braves. In his last 17 games (15 starts), Ortiz has slugged .796 and knocked in 14 runs, the most recent coming on last night’s parabolic bottle rocket - manager Terry Francona called it “majestic’’ - that splashed down in the right-field bleachers like one of the Apollo missions.

The best part? The blow came on a fastball over the inner third of the plate, a pitch Ortiz had no chance of hitting a month ago. And while the pitch was a little too high and a little too centered for the liking of Braves starter Jair Jurrjens, it was nonetheless the kind of offering that routinely produces fly outs, particularly among players possessing a .218 batting average.

Now comes the only question that should matter to the Red Sox and their followers, particularly during a marshmallow-soft stretch that should allow the Sox to build a nice margin for error entering the All-Star break: Can Ortiz keep this up? If so, for how long? Were April and May aberrational months, or is this June boon the exception to the rule?

Can anyone explain how a man can go from looking so inept for so long to so familiarly prolific?

Please, can anyone provide any logic at all?

“Logic? Probably not,’’ said Francona. “It’s what makes this game so crazy. He’s was kind of lost for a while. Now he’s kind of found himself and it’s good for us. We need him to hit.’’

Indeed they do.

And they may need him more as time goes on.

Maybe this is nothing more than a coincidence, but the Sox are playing their best baseball of the season. They are 17-6 in their last 23 games, during which they have posted a 3.38 ERA and outscored their opponents, 130-85. During that span, Ortiz has batted .303 with a 1.055 OPS to backbone an offense that has been relatively mediocre by Red Sox standards, which only magnifies the importance of his contribution.

At the moment, the Sox are without Mike Lowell (is anyone else worried about him?) and operating sans a designated hitter. Despite that, they have gone 5-2 in National League parks. The Sox are getting key hits when they need them - the Braves, in contrast, went 1 for 16 with men on base last night and 0 for 10 with men in scoring position - particularly from a man who looked washed up two months into the season.

Over the coming weeks, the Sox will have some important decisions to make. Between now and the All-Star Game July 14, the Sox will play 15 games, 12 against clubs currently possessing losing records. (This comes following a 10-game stretch during which they went 7-3 against the Marlins, Braves, and Nationals). By the time the Sox open the second half at Toronto July 17, they could be more than 20 games above .500 and possessors of a spongy lead in the American League East, affording them the luxury of taking things right down to the wire at the July 31 trading deadline.

So, what will the Sox’ needs be then? At this point, that is impossible to say. They might still need a shortstop. They might need a third baseman (Mark DeRosa, anyone?). The Sox might even need a hitter or, perhaps, nothing at all - depending largely on the performance of Ortiz.

In a best-case scenario, we know how this would play out for general manager Theo Epstein and the Sox over the balance of the season. Ortiz hits. Lowell stays healthy. The pitching staff remains intact. In that scenario, the Sox could make a spirited run at the World Series and preserve all of the pitching in their minor league system for 2010 and beyond. Heck, along the way, maybe they would even re-sign Jason Bay.

The worst case? Lowell goes down and Ortiz goes belly-up, leaving the Sox with such a sizable hole in their lineup that any deal Epstein makes would be fruitless. The Sox would sacrifice some of their future for nothing. They would miss out on the World Series while giving up some young pitching.

Amid all of those moving parts, the greatest variable may be Ortiz.

Last night, looking far more jovial than the man who frequently departed Fenway Park in the spring hiding under his headphones, Ortiz popped in his ear buds and sauntered away from his locker. He wore white, leather tennis shoes that looked as if they had just been pulled from the box, and Ortiz laughed about the spring sling in which his career had been placed.

He has a much healthier outlook now.

If he is still smiling and laughing a month from now, the Red Sox won’t be talking about his fall as much as they will be talking about autumn.

Tony Massarotti can be reached at tmassarotti@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com/massarotti

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