As the Red Sox headed for New York and a four-game series with the Yankees during the early days of July 2003, David Ortiz had finally begun to establish a role with his new team. He’d started just 49 of 83 games to that juncture, but the opportunities were becoming more regular, and deservedly so, based on his numbers. His batting average had bumped to .298. He was reaching base at a clip of .385.
However, through 218 plate appearances, David Ortiz had slugged just five home runs. David Ortiz had gone deep 14 fewer times than Manny Ramirez, and at least seven fewer times than four other teammates. David Ortiz was tied for eighth on the club in homers, even with the gap-hitting Bill Mueller and the soon-to-be-road-hitting Jeremy Giambi. David Ortiz hadn’t demonstrated the type of power demanded of a designated hitter, particularly in that inflated era.
But it was there, in the Bronx, that David Ortiz began morphing into Big Papi.
The nickname might’ve come later, though Ortiz celebrated that Fourth of July by launching a pair of long balls. Then he followed it up by homering twice the next day, too — and with that the legend was afoot. Ortiz would hit 26 homers over that season’s final 79 games, easily the most among those Sox, and over the next 13 years not only would he emerge as one of the best home run hitters in baseball history, he would leave the game’s preeminent rivalry permanently altered in a way that’ll leave Yankees fans remembering his greatness almost as much as rooters of the Red Sox will. Defined by a few of his signature moments amid a lengthy run of sustained excellence, Ortiz always seemed to be in the middle of everything (even a few fights) against the Yankees, including these six highlights of those oft-epic encounters:
July 26, 2003: His first walkoff with the Red Sox
Ortiz’s first stroke toward his ultimate designation as the greatest clutch hitter in franchise history came against the Yankees, naturally, when manager Grady Little sent him to pinch hit for Damian Jackson after the Boston bullpen turned a 4-0 lead into a tie game.
“Grady told me, `Go hit that Green Monster,’ ” Ortiz said, according to the Globe the next day. “I said, `What? Oh, all right.’ ”
So that he did. After taking a close 0-2 pitch from Armando Benitez, Ortiz went with a heater away and smacked it high off the left-field wall, chasing home Giambi from second base and quickly building on his burgeoning reputation as a “Yankee killer” – a title Jackie MacMullan bestowed upon him twice in her column the next morning.
“This Yankees-Red Sox,” Ortiz said then, “it’s fun.”
October 17, 2004: Game 4 of the ALCS
While Kevin Millar might’ve been boldly professing his faith to Dan Shaughnessy inside Fenway Park, his sentiments weren’t exactly being echoed outside the stadium as Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS approached. In the wake of a 19-8 loss that left the Sox in a 3-0 series hole, Lansdowne Street was lifeless, with little buzz on the streets, empty tables in the bars, and a general lack of enthusiasm for what some figured was a funeral later Sunday night.
Boston couldn’t be blamed for an absence of hope in the face of what to then had been proven impossible. But some five hours after Game 4 began, at 1:22 a.m. the next morning, Ortiz breathed life into whatever ardent belief remained. Pulling Paul Quantrill’s 12th-inning fastball into the visitors’ bullpen, his third and fourth RBI of the contest made the Sox 6-4 winners in one of the most dramatic clashes in franchise history.
It kept them alive. It enabled Dave Roberts’ steal to eventually rise from merely an instant thrill to an iconic event in Boston sports. And it set Ortiz up for yet another chance to deliver his brand of baseball heroism. Right away, in fact.
October 18, 2004: Game 5 of the ALCS
Twenty-one hours and 38 minutes after his two-run blast helped fend off a sweep, Ortiz significantly furthered the suddenly surging feeling that the Sox might actually be capable of pulling off a miracle in the ALCS.
This time the tension had moved into a 14th inning, Game 5 tied at 4 because of the homer Ortiz contributed to a two-run rally that evened the score in the eighth, and the designated hitter found himself locked in a battle with Esteban Loaiza. The veteran Yankee righty had quickly jumped ahead in the count, 1-2, but Ortiz fouled off five of the next six pitches. Finally, on the 10th pitch of the fight, Ortiz ultimately got his hands inside the ball enough to flare it safely into shallow center, and as it landed Johnny Damon dashed home from second base with the winning tally. The ALCS was headed back to New York, where history awaited – largely because of the history Ortiz had already made.
“That was phenomenal, and one of the best at-bats I’ve ever seen to end it,” general manager Theo Epstein said afterward. “Loaiza was throwing nuclear stuff out there and locating. But David was so locked in, and to foul all those balls off the way he did and then to hit that ball to center was remarkable.”
June 11, 2009: The second wind arrives
The blip in Ortiz’s Boston career came in 2009, when his numbers bottomed out and there were legitimate questions about whether Big Papi and his big body could be done at age 34. These concerns were amplified by a brutal start that saw him homer just once through the end of May, and carry a .196 average into June 11.
That day the Sox took on the Yankees in the rubber match of a three-game set, with New York throwing its ace lefty, C.C. Sabathia. It had the makings of a difficult night for Ortiz, who has hit .219 against Sabathia in his career, and who was slotted into the No. 6 spot in the lineup – but who hit the first pitch of the second inning over the Monster. He later added a single to his line, then walked against another lefty, reliever Phil Coke.
The Sox won, 5-4, and thus retained sole possession of first place. But, more important, that proved to be the launch point Ortiz had been looking for. His average never dipped below .200 again, only once more did he hit as low as sixth in the order, and he posted a .905 OPS the rest of the way. That resurgence was enough to restore faith in Ortiz’s abilities moving forward, and subsequently his age 35-40 seasons were arguably as good offensively as there has been.
2010-15: Consistent production
From 2010 to 2015, Ortiz’s resume against the Yankees doesn’t feature a monster performance or a particularly memorable moment — perhaps because Boston and New York haven’t been battling each other near the top of the standings year after year, like they seemed to perennial be doing earlier in his era. But Ortiz has nevertheless posed a consistent problem for Yankee pitching.
Over the past six full seasons he’s delivered a .306 average with a .395 OBP and .950 OPS against New York, and maintained a pace that would project to 51 doubles, 33 homers, and 95 RBI if extrapolated over a full season. Overall, in the 11 seasons spanning 2005-15, Ortiz hit .304 with a .397 OBP and .959 OPS against the Yanks, so he enters his final series in the Bronx with 31 homers there, second-most all-time among visiting players.
April 29, 2016: One more big blast … for Maverick
In case the memories of a dozen years ago had begun to fade, Ortiz authored the Yankees one more reminder of his magic this past April. In the eighth inning of a tied game, he stepped in against Dellin Betances, the New York flamethrower who to that point had allowed only a run while striking out 23 of the 38 hitter he’d faced, and had emerged as one of the best relievers in baseball.
The 6-foot-8 Betances was deadly if he got ahead in the count, so Ortiz went to the plate with a plan, saw a first-pitch curveball, and didn’t wait. He crushed it, converting an 83 mph hook into a 105 mph clout, clearing the left-field wall and creating the difference in the opener of what became a tone-setting three-game sweep of the Bombers.
Even better, it fulfilled a pregame promise Ortiz had made to Maverick, a 6-year-old Sox fan with a heart defect and lung disease. Before taking the field that night, Ortiz and Millar sent the boy a video message in which the DH pledged, “I’m going to hit a homer for you tonight. Remember that. For you.” And then he made good.
“Big Papi, you never let me down,” Maverick answered in a video of his own afterward. “And you are the best player ever in the Red Sox game.”
That part is certainly debatable — but the Yankees, in particular, could sure make a strong case the kid is right.