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Gonzalez, Ortiz, and some powerful clues

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  July 17, 2012 04:29 PM

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David Ortiz has been everything Adrian Gonzalez was supposed to this season, picking up the slugging slack in the middle of the order while Gonzalez offered his bizarre nightly homage to Lyle Overbay for a couple of months.

So we wonder: Is it possible that Monday night's satisfying 5-1 victory over the White Sox, which featured the returns of Kevin Youkilis, Carl Crawford, and Gonzalez's home-run stroke, stands as a harbinger that the favor is about to be returned?

Gonzalez mashed the winning three-run homer in the eighth inning, a cathartic blast that has been overdue since the frustrating early spring. But the celebration was collectively exhilarating only for a moment. Ortiz came up limping rounding second base -- what is it with this franchise and injuries on home runs? -- and so as one slugger apparently returned, another departed, hobbling down the dugout steps while his manager wore a concerned look that actually appeared sincere.

We'll find out soon enough whether Ortiz will miss anything more than a couple of games. It appears there's no reason to fear the worst, but the way this season as gone for the Red Sox, it's probably wise to wait for confirmation before exhaling. (Confirmation: No rupture, no tear, and he says he'll probably miss a week. Commence breathing.)

It will require a longer stretch before concluding whether Gonzalez's home run last night, which was so encouraging in that he went the opposite way and hit if off a lefty and FINALLY HIT A HOME RUN, is an indication that he's found his way back to being the elite slugger who hit 165 homers over the five previous seasons.

His power outage -- just seven homers so far, or 10 fewer than Jarrod Saltalamacchia -- has been so puzzling and prolonged that it's easy to forget how sensational he was during his first half-season with the Red Sox. I don't expect those of you who completely dismissed Manny Ramirez and exclaimed during those heady May 2011 times that Gonzalez is the finest Red Sox hitter since Ted Williams to admit it now, but you know who you are.

He was awesome. During the first half of the 2011 season, Gonzalez hit .354 with a 1.006 OPS, 17 homers, and 77 RBIs. He belted nine home runs in May, batted .373 in June, and was the most valuable player in the league to that point if Toronto's Jose Bautista was not. He could play in Boston, can play in Boston, and please, can we stop speculating and stroking our own provincial egos around here by suggesting that a player's underwhelming performance is the manifestation of this hardscrabble, discerning fan base?

yazfinn717.jpgRed Sox fans are knowledgeable, but it's not an entirely separate subsection that also caterwauls "Sweet Caroline" in the eighth inning, come hell or a blown nine-run lead to the Yankees. We ain't that intimidating, Sully. Sometimes, good players have bad years for a variety of reasons. Yaz dropped from 40 homers and a .329 average in 1970 to 15/.254 in '71. Wade Boggs, who could bat .340-something while masterminding Delta Force, hit .259 in '92. It happens.

It's not happening to Ortiz, of course. He's having a vintage year even by the high standards he's set during his -- has it really been this long? -- 10 seasons in Boston. He had a 1.013 OPS in the first half, slightly higher than Gonzalez's heading into the All-Star break a year ago, and he's currently at .312 with 23 homers and 58 RBIs.

Starting pitching was the primary culprit in the Red Sox' mediocre first half, with the offense (5.0 runs per game, second only to Texas) feasting in blowouts but generally doing its job. But had Ortiz not produced in a way Gonzalez was expected to but could not, chances are there would be many more significant gripes about the offense.

Where would the Red Sox be without him? Maybe it's a sign that things are starting to go right for this team, despite Ortiz's emotional "We're cursed'' declaration Monday, that we won't have to find out beyond a few games.

Instead, Red Sox fans can share this reasonable daydream: That Ortiz and Gonzalez begin tearing the cover off the ball at the same time, and their currently congested playoff chances begin to look legitimate.

It has been such a weird, mystifying season for Gonzalez. His walk rate, once as high as 17.5 percent in a single season, is down to 6.1 percent this year, and a player who once walked 119 times in a season went 24 games without drawing a single base on balls. Some scouts said he was pressing and would snap out of it, while others suggested he was struggling to get around on the fastball, a pitch he mauled to the tune of a .354 average last year. And the strangest sight of all? Watching him roaming around right field for 18 games.

I'm optimistic that we'll see the version of Gonzalez that was so familiar to Padres fans for five years, though not all indicators point to a full recovery of ... well, of whatever was missing. He's hitting .400 in July ... with a .400 on-base percentage, with no walks in 40 plate appearances. Right now, his 2012 season is essentially statistically average -- he has a 100 OPS+, stuck in the middle with the likes of Logan Morrison, Yonder Alonso, and David DeJesus.

At the least, Monday's homer is the best piece of evidence yet that he's trending toward better company.

@GlobeChadFinn

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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