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Dan Shaughnessy

Bat still quiet, complaints loud

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / April 8, 2010

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There is no better place to be a baseball hero. And there is no worse place to be a baseball goat.

The highs are higher than Kilimanjaro. And the lows? The lows are where bottom looks like up.

This is why Boston is a great baseball town.

This is why Boston is a tough baseball town.

David Ortiz is 1 for 11 in the first three games of the 2010 baseball season, and a good portion of Red Sox Nation (media included) is ready to kick him to the curb. On the heels of his dreadful start in 2009, there is little patience with the aging slugger. Especially if the Sox have trouble scoring runs as they did in last night’s 3-1 loss to the Yankees. (Curtis Granderson homered off Jonathan Papelbon in the 10th, which no doubt will start the drumbeat to replace Papelbon with Daniel Bard.)

Big Papi went 1 for 4 with two strikeouts in the defeat. He knocked in Boston’s only run, but he left another pair in scoring position. After the game, he departed the clubhouse before media arrived.

“What do we do with David Ortiz?’’ was the Boston sports topic du jour throughout the day and night. It was an official frenzy. The Ortiz Problem got more radio air time than Martha Coakley vs. Scott Brown. It was the water-cooler topic of the day. Regional Toyota dealers took up a collection and sent Big Papi a thank-you note that read, “Thanks for taking us off the hook. People are finally complaining about something else.’’

Terry Francona — loyal to his veterans the way Dick Cheney was to George W. Bush — spoke at length about the decision to keep Ortiz in the lineup before the rubber match of the series.

“Tonight would have been a good night to play [Mike] Lowell,’’ the manager acknowledged. “But it would have been a bad night not to play David. You can’t use two DHs.

“David’s had a lot of success against [Andy] Pettitte. We’re nine hours into this season and I want him to walk up there and feel comfortable. I don’t want David looking over his shoulder a game and a half into the season.

“Every day you have to continue to earn your stripes in this game. It doesn’t get easier. He’s done a lot of good things here and I think he thinks some people bailed on him last year. Being reactionary isn’t my job. My goodness, it’s the third game of the year. Yeah. Crazy.

“I know the numbers. David had 99 RBIs last year. If you didn’t play him against lefties, he wouldn’t have the numbers he had against righties. It’s a little deeper than what people are looking at.

“I don’t feel panic. I don’t wake up and run to the radio or the paper to see how I’m being perceived. This job is hard enough. Fans are not supposed to think logically all the time. There’s an old saying that if you manage like a fan, you’ll be a fan.’’

This was the climate when Ortiz came to bat with runners on first and third and two out in the first. Papi grounded the first pitch into the shift, where the second baseman was positioned in shallow right.

Two innings later, the Big Fella had his moment. On a 2-and-2 pitch, he crushed a 90-mile-per-hour fastball to right for a two-out single, scoring Dustin Pedroia to break a scoreless tie.

There was more drama, and less success, in the fifth when Ortiz came up with two on and two out. He worked the count to 3 and 2, then fanned on an 82-mile-per-hour slider that sailed wide as it went into the glove of Jorge Posada.

In the eighth, Ortiz struck out swinging. Chan Ho Park threw him three pitches, none over 87 miles per hour.

The third-inning single gets the Steinway off Papi’s back for a few hours, but we all know the issue isn’t going away — not if he continues to struggle, not as long as Lowell sits on the bench, waiting to be traded.

In three games, Ortiz has come to the plate with eight runners in scoring position. He has delivered one. He has ended six innings.

The Sox front office is responsible for the Ortiz Problem. The Sox rolled the dice and committed to Big Papi as the DH/No. 5 hitter for the start of this season. It’s a commitment that won’t be abandoned after a handful of games. But it’s risky.

The Sox are hoping Ortiz can reverse his downward trend of the last couple of years, and Ortiz thus far has responded like a man who is feeling the pressure. Meanwhile, Lowell sits and stews. His presence only underscores the Ortiz Problem and the gamble the Sox made.

The Sox are off today, then hit the road for a week. Bet Ortiz is glad to be getting out of town.

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