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The critics can’t get inside Ortiz’s head

By Nick Cafardo
February 27, 2011

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — As you sit and talk to David Ortiz you can’t help but buy into what he’s saying. He’s very convincing about his career, about his status in the final season of his contract with the Red Sox, and about compartmentalizing his slow starts.

And the more you listen, the more you realize that getting rid of Ortiz after this season is going to be pretty difficult, unless the downfall some have predicted the past few years finally unfolds after a couple of false alarms.

Ortiz doesn’t think so.

“The reason I’m here right now is because the Red Sox looked at my numbers at the end of the season, and somebody said, ‘That’s pretty damn good,’ ’’ said Ortiz, who had 32 homers and 102 RBIs in 2010. “People want to get into your head with that lefty thing [.222 vs. lefties] and April [.143] but the bottom line is the bottom line.’’

Ortiz knows that, as a 30-100 guy, he’s in select company. With an enhanced lineup around him, shouldn’t that even get better? What he’s not going to do is allow himself — or people around him — to panic if he starts badly again.

“The more you think about that, the more it gets worse,’’ he said. “It’s something people try to get in your head, and people get freaked out when you don’t start off well.

“A lot of guys start the season slow and nobody puts attention to it. I keep saying this, and I don’t know if people can think of it, but I try my best at the start of the season.

“Who doesn’t want to hit .350 with 10 or 15 bombs? Who doesn’t? I want to do that. That’s my goal right now.

“Besides that, I don’t want a guy who puts up good numbers in April and then shuts it down. April does not determine if you’re going to be in the playoffs or not.

“I want a guy that when June, July, and August comes, I can count on him. That’s the way I was taught to play baseball. It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.

“Who remembers April from last year? I guarantee people remember what I did in September.’’

As much as he doesn’t like to dwell on the bad start, the criticism still haunts him.

“It’s unbelievable,’’ he said. “Out of my last 10 months in baseball, I’ve had one bad month, and that was last April, and nobody talks about the other nine months. Nobody talks about, ‘Hey Davey, think you can do what you did in May of last year?’ Nobody asks me that question.

“Everyone asks me about April. April to me is like March. April does not determine what will happen in September. You know who I learned that from? Manny Ramirez. One year he got off to a slow start and he said, ‘Don’t worry. By the end of the season, I’ll be there with everybody.’ And he was.

“So many teams don’t go to the postseason because guys don’t hit late in the year after the All-Star Game and there’s a lot of guys out of baseball because of that.’’

He vows he will not be one of them.

“What else can I prove?’’ he said. “People focus on the last two years? Well, the last two years I had 60 homers and over 200 RBIs. As bad as people want to make it sound like, that’s pretty good. How many players have those numbers? Not that many.

“I’m just not going to pay attention to what people have to say. The numbers will be there at the end of the season.’’

The market for designated hitters is shrinking. Vladimir Guerrero, who like Ortiz is 35, got the best DH contract this offseason, at $8 million with incentives from the Orioles. Ortiz may never again see the $12.5 million he is getting this year, but he still expects to be in baseball for a few more years.

He would love to stay with the Red Sox, but he has no idea what the team has in store for him. Ortiz asked for a multiyear contract but settled for the team picking up his option year.

Asked whether he’ll be back in Boston next year, he said, “I don’t know. Probably, probably not. Not worried about it. It’s up to them. I’m always open.’’

If he weren’t still a force, opponents wouldn’t keep employing shifts against him. They would pitch to him rather than giving him a steady diet of off-speed stuff off the plate.

And now, if Carl Crawford is on second base, the feeling is that teams will think twice about using shifts against Ortiz, because it means an easy steal of third.

“I do my best when I’m patient and lay off bad pitches and take my walks,’’ said Ortiz. “Sometimes I’m up there trying to get three hits in one at-bat, and that doesn’t work for me. Sometimes I don’t get one pitch to hit in an at-bat, and that’s when I have to stay patient and take the walk.

“I think I’m always going to have to deal with the shift because I’m a natural pull hitter. And what people don’t realize is that it’s hard for me to go the other way because they pitch me inside. I’m really the opposite of Adrian [Gonzalez] because his natural stroke is to left-center.’’

It’s interesting that Ortiz’s 32-102 numbers were almost identical to Gonzalez’s 31-101 last season. Gonzalez had a slightly better OPS (.904-.899), but this is where the perception of Ortiz gets a little fuzzy — that he’s a player on the decline while Gonzalez is a player on the rise.

But nobody can deny that Ortiz’s performance has fallen off from the 40- and 50-homer seasons.

“There’s a little age discrimination there,’’ said Ortiz. “If you can still do the job and hit the ball and drive in runs and hit home runs, then what are we talking about? I can still do that. I feel good. There’s no reason I won’t do that again.’’

Another slow start will bring out the “he’s all done’’ talk.

But Ortiz would answer that with ‘piano, piano’’ (Italian for “slowly, slowly’’). In other words, it will come with time.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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