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Big problems for Big Papi

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  May 2, 2009 08:42 AM

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- April has turned to May, and David Ortiz’s batting average remains a soft .220. Maybe it’s time to ask the questions everyone is thinking.

What if this isn’t just a slump?

What if it’s something far more, well, permanent?

Ortiz went 0 for 4 with another strikeout last night in the Red Sox’ 6-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field, giving him precisely 23 strikeouts in 23 games this year. He has zero home runs and is slugging .319. The man who almost single-handedly lifted the Red Sox to the 2004 World Series championship now looks hollow at the plate, and Ortiz himself now seems consumed by more doubt than at any other point during his Red Sox career.

Following last night’s game, while Julio Lugo politely urged reporters to "leave [Ortiz] alone," Ortiz quietly gathered his belongings and sauntered out the clubhouse door, his weight familiarly shifting from side to side as if he were quite literally marching to the beat of his own drummer. Nonetheless, his stride does not seem so rhythmic anymore. Ortiz hasn’t been able to catch up to a fastball so far this season and everybody knows it, though manager Terry Francona seems intent on letting Ortiz remain in the No. 3 spot in his batting order.

"I guess I’d always consider doing what’s in our team’s best interest,’’ Francona said when asked if he considered it a viable option to move Ortiz down in the lineup. "I think it does more harm than good. We’ve had pretty much a set lineup [in recent years]. Three days ago, when we were winning 11 out of 12, nobody was asking that. I don’t know that it’s the best thing to do.’’

Meanwhile, Ortiz continues to flail away and look off balance, the victim of opposing pitchers who are mercilessly exploiting his problems. Prior to last night’s game, Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan told the Globe’s Amalie Benjamin what has been apparent for weeks, namely that Ortiz is "cheating’’ to get to fastballs by starting his swing earlier. One of the resulting effects is that Ortiz has been on his front foot on off-speed pitches, leading to an array of ugly swings and weak outs that have defined his first month of 2009.

So why does a hitter cheat? Because he is not confident in his ability to catch up to the fastball. If the first rule of hitting is to trust yourself, Ortiz has been failing at the most fundamental concept of life in the batter’s box. If you cannot hit a fastball in the major leagues, you cannot hit anything because you are vulnerable to anything and everything in any pitcher’s arsenal.

Ortiz knows this, regardless of whether he wants to admit it publicly. Late during the 2005 season, with Ortiz on the way to a second-place finish in the American League Most Valuable Player Award balloting, he delivered clutch hits on a regular basis during the final weeks of the season. Following one such blast -- a game-tying home run against Detroit Tigers reliever Fernando Rodney at Comerica Park in August -- Ortiz admitted that he always thinks fastball first, off-speed second. He believed fully in his ability to adjust to whatever was thrown his way.

Now? Entering last night, the Red Sox ranked 12th among the 14 American League teams in OPS from their No. 3 hitters, 12th in OPS from the designated hitters. They are the only team in the AL without a homer from their DH. Ortiz has just nine walks in the team’s first 23 games, a pace that would produce 63 walks over a 162-game schedule. From 2005-07, Ortiz’s 332 walks led all players in the major leagues and his 44 intentional walks were third-most in the league.

Of the Sox’ 10 intentional walks this year, Ortiz has zero.

From Francona’s standpoint, the options at this stage are limited. Ortiz has been such a huge part of what the Red Sox have built over the last several years that the manager cannot easily sit him; during Francona’s time in Boston, one of the manager’s greatest assets has been the loyalty, commitment and respect afforded all players, but especially the veteran ones. So long as the Red Sox continue to score runs on a reasonably productive basis, Francona and the club can absorb Ortiz’s difficulties. Keeping him in the lineup will preserve the trust and culture the Red Sox have built in the clubhouse while becoming the most successful baseball franchise of this millennium.

Long-term? That’s another matter. Ortiz effectively will earn salaries of $13 million this year and next as part of a four-year, $52 million contract that initially looked like such a baseball Brinks Job that guilty club owners gave Ortiz a pickup truck during spring training of 2007. Two years later, we can only wonder if Sox officials have one of those lead-bottomed contracts they so strongly detest. Aside from Ortiz’s status as a 10-5 man, his salary and productivity are not in alignment at the moment -- particularly in this economy -- which makes him impossible to trade.

Naturally, baseball can be a peculiar game. Slightly more than three years ago, during the spring of 2006, the Red Sox were so worried about then-newcomer Mike Lowell during spring training that they signed Hee Seop Choi during camp. Two seasons later, Lowell had knocked in 120 runs and been named MVP of the World Series, leading to the three-year, $37.5 million contract that runs through next season.

Still, in Ortiz’s case, the signs are more worrisome than many might care to acknowledge. Prior to injuring his wrist at the end of May last season, Ortiz was batting .252 and slugging .486. The latter number was a whopping .209 below the .695 Ortiz slugged in the second half of the 2007 season. The obvious point is that there have long been signs here for anyone who cared to notice, though the Red Sox would gladly take the Ortiz of last season now given the results of the first 23 games in 2009.

"He's taking it hard. Like I said, when you're a star and you know you can hit, things don't happen the way you want you're going to get mad and you're supposed to get mad because you're supposed to do all those things,’’ Lugo said of Ortiz. "I don't expect him to be happy. If he was happy, I'd be the first one who'd want to whip his [posterior].

"David's the heart of the team. I mean, without him, it's going to be hard for us to keep going. I don't have any doubt in my mind or anybody's mind that he's going to come through. He's going through a hard time right now, but you know what, he hasn't forgotten how to hit. He hasn't forgotten how to play baseball. He's right there. One click. He's missing his pitches right now. Just a little adjustment, he's going to be OK.’’

He’s probably right.

Isn’t he?

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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