One of the new kids in town, Mark Malaska watched in awe as David Ortiz took batting practice one day early in spring training and began asking his fellow Red Sox pitchers how on earth they would get the Dominican slugger out.
"I was like, `How do you pitch this guy?' " Malaska said. "No one could really give me an answer."
Don't bother asking Aquilino Lopez. The Toronto reliever learned the hard way yesterday that throwing a 2-2 split-finger fastball to Ortiz with a game on the line was absolutely not the answer. While Malaska watched with glee, Ortiz swatted Lopez's splitter into the gathering dusk and over the Green Monster for a two-run, walk-off homer in the bottom of the 12th inning as the Sox outlasted the Blue Jays, 6-4, before the hardy souls who remained from the 34,286 who turned out on Easter in the Fens.
Lopez should have known what Malaska learned at the batting cage and others have realized since Ortiz began contending for last year's MVP award.
"He's one of the best lefthanded power guys in the league," Kevin Millar said. "David Ortiz is not a guy to be messed with."
The victory spared the shorthanded Sox from a long spell of gloom on their offday today. Ortiz's homer, the first of the season over the Monster, capped the team's first come-from-behind win and first triumph in the last at-bat. He knocked in Bill Mueller, who had walked leading off the 12th against Lopez in the final scene of the 3-hour, 53-minute affair.
"It's good to go into the offday with a dramatic victory like this," general manager Theo Epstein said. "If we lost this game, it would have not been a good night's sleep for a lot of us. It was a big win at a time when we needed it."
It was especially big for Malaska, the 26-year-old former Devil Ray who earned the win by recording the final six outs. Malaska entered the game after Bobby Jones put the Sox in peril by walking the first two batters in the 11th on eight pitches (Jones has walked the last five batters he faced, including the final three in Baltimore last Thursday when he forced in the winning run in the 13th inning in a 3-2 loss). And Malaska sparkled, retiring all six batters he faced, including the dangerous Frank Catalanotto, Vernon Wells, and Carlos Delgado with the go-ahead run on second in the 11th.
As the youngest guy in the Sox pen, Malaska has been assigned by the veterans to tote a tackle box bearing some of their bullpen needs, such as chewing tobacco. But he looked nothing like a rookie with the game in jeopardy. The first six batters in Toronto's order managed to get only one ball out of the infield against him.
"This was definitely the biggest game situation of my career," Malaska said. "When you get an opportunity to pitch in a game like this and win it, the feeling is unbelievable. I'm finally taking some breaths."
With the Sox unable to turn to one of their top bullpen guns, Scott Williamson, because of some tenderness near his right elbow, Malaska helped Alan Embree (two-thirds of an inning) and Keith Foulke (1 1/3 innings) provide four innings of scoreless relief to set the stage for Ortiz's electric moment.
"This is the kind of time when guys can make a reputation for themselves, and I think he came out and proved he's going to be an important part of this ball club," Sox starter Curt Schilling said of Malaska.
The Sox also were competing with a diminished bench after Brian Daubach was designated for assignment to clear space for long reliever Frank Castillo. In addition, they had little opportunity to use Ellis Burks because he is limited to serving as a designated hitter, the spot Ortiz occupied.
"It was a great win," manager Terry Francona said. "There were chances to lose that game, and we didn't. We had chances earlier to win it, and we didn't. There's something to be said for perseverance."
The Sox had a chance to break the stalemate in the 10th when Manny Ramirez and Millar singled against Lopez, putting runners at first and second with none out. But the threat fizzled when Jason Varitek bounced into a double play and Gabe Kapler fouled out.
Trailing, 4-3, the Sox tied it in the ninth when Cesar Crespo doubled down the third-base line leading off and scored on Mark Bellhorn's one-out single to right. A batter later, Ortiz nearly won it when he powered a ball to the 379-foot marker in center, where Vernon Wells leaped at the wall and snared it.
"I thought he hit that ball even better [than the winner]," Varitek said. "He never ceases to amaze me."
The game turned into an urgent standoff after Schilling, making his Fenway debut in a Sox uniform, was narrowly outdueled by his former Arizona rotation mate, Miguel Batista. After the Sox touched Batista for two runs in the first inning on a double by Ramirez and sacrifice fly by Millar, Batista retired 19 of the next 21 batters as he completed seven innings and never surrendered a hit after Ramirez's.
Toronto broke a 2-2 tie in the sixth. Schilling surrendered a single to Josh Phelps on an 0-2 pitch, then left up a pitch to Eric Hinske, who socked a two-run shot to right.
All told, Schilling allowed four runs over eight innings. Then he joined his teammates in savoring Ortiz's moment.
"As disappointed as I was when I came out of that game," Schilling said, "it all went away when he hit that ball."