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Bob Ryan

Numbers lately are making for a better Ortiz balance sheet

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / August 23, 2009

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In the midst of the 15 hits that produced the runs in yesterday’s table-turning 14-1 Red Sox conquest of the New York Yankees, one hit mattered more than the other 14.

Bottom of the first: Dustin Pedroia on third, Victor Martinez on first, two away in a scoreless game. David Ortiz drills a double to left, scoring both men. Papi looked like a very happy man when he arrived out there in the middle of the diamond. He knew what he had done.

Nothing buoys a team more than a two-out RBI, and the Red Sox took the cue, scoring 13 runs after two were out. Only a one-out solo homer by Alex Gonzalez in the second kept them from a perfect two-out day.

But the one that mattered most was the first-inning double by Big Papi, because it gave them a welcome 2-0 lead over the team that had beaten them five straight times and had laid a 20-spot on them the night before, and because the runs were delivered by Big Papi. Does anyone think the Red Sox will make the playoffs, or accomplish anything once they get there, if David Ortiz isn’t slamming baseballs hither and yon?

Papi added a solo homer in the fifth, a blast over The Wall in left-center. We have come to recognize opposite-field hits as signs that Big Papi is, well, Big Papi. His three ribbies give him 13 in his last eight games. Is this all a tease, or is it evidence that David Ortiz can be the David Ortiz of Big Papi fame? With five multihit games in his last eight, and with his hits including four doubles and five homers, something good must be going on.

“I’d say his balance is good,’’ observed manager Terry Francona. “I don’t know about [other] specifics. He’s like all hitters. If his balance is good, and he swings at strikes, he’s good. He’s not trying to generate power. It’s just coming in his swing. The ball’s coming off his bat really well.’’

You might be surprised to learn that Big Papi is creeping up on 100 runs batted in, which would be a phenomenal achievement, considering his April and May. With five in the last two games, and those 13 in his last eight, he only needs 25 in his remaining 40 games in order to reach 100 for the sixth time as a member of the Red Sox.

That sounds doable.

Yesterday’s homer was No. 20, which marks the eighth consecutive season he’s reached that number. Given that he didn’t hit homer No. 1 until May 20 and homer No. 2 until June 6, his current numbers - 20 and 75 - are more than respectable.

“It feels good,’’ he said of hitting No. 20. “Like I always tell you guys, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. You guys know the first two months were really tough for me.’’

The first two months weren’t his only problem. After struggling badly in April and May, bottoming out with a .185 average May 31, he had a Papi-like June, with a .320 average, 7 homers, 18 RBIs, a .409 on-base percentage, a .653 slugging percentage, and, therefore, a gaudy 1.062 OPS.

But he was unable to build on that, and then he hit a second dip in the aftermath of the revelation that his name was on the infamous list of players who’d tested positive for a banned substance in 2003. He hit a dramatic home run the day all this came to light, but then he had serious problems at the plate for the next two weeks.

He broke out of it with a double and homer during an 8-4 conquest of the Rangers Aug. 14, and he has been his old, menacing self at the plate ever since.

It’s been a tough calendar year for Ortiz, whose production was curtailed last year with a wrist injury that hampered him so severely he was limited to 109 games, 416 at-bats, and a Red Sox career-low 89 runs batted in. Anyone could see that his wrist had made him into a warning-track-power guy. Still, common sense dictated that had he been able to play a reasonable number of games, he easily would have driven in his annual hundred. But some people seemed to forget that when evaluating his performance.

Many people, in fact, were ready to bail on him during his low moments this season. Fortunately for him, Francona was not one of those people, and his opinion counts more than anyone’s.

Was skepticism warranted when things were going badly? Sure. Was he really born Nov. 18, 1975? Isn’t his a body type that normally doesn’t wear very well? Was the wrist healed? And, yup, was he not the same guy, absent his vitamins? And he added to the picture by looking really, really bad at the plate. The balance Francona spoke about yesterday was conspicuously absent in April and May. It seemed like every count was immediately 0-and-2, and it seemed as if anyone who could throw 88, let alone 98, could get it by him.

But this man didn’t become Big Papi because he was an aimless grip-it-and-rip-it slugger. He became Big Papi because he was a frightening combination of strength and savvy. The prime Papi was a smart, dangerous hitter, not a flailing slugger. There is no way he simply forgot how to hit.

This, remember, is baseball we’re talking about. It is the longest, most intricate, most involved, most fascinating season of them all. You can have a bad month, and it’s not going to kill you. You can even have a bad half year, and still have 81 games to get healthy, get comfortable, get your rhythm, get your confidence, get your mojo, get your whatever. The Terry Franconas of the world have seen all this repeated many times over, and so they know better than to abandon people who have achieved great things in this game.

There is still a quarter of a season remaining, and in that time a David Ortiz for whom “the ball’s coming off his bat really well’’ can do a lot of damage.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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