Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe

At times, a maddening shift

TAMPA -- As David Ortiz stepped into the batter's box to face lefthander Scott Kazmir with two away and the bases empty in the first inning of last night's game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, this is what he saw.

Third baseman Aubrey Huff was playing your basic left field. Left fielder Carl Crawford was playing in left-center. Center fielder Rocco Baldelli was playing in right-center, shaded slightly toward center. Right fielder Russell Branyan was playing right field. Shortstop Julio Lugo was playing second base, in something approaching double-play depth. Second baseman Jorge Cantu was stationed in right field, about 30 feet onto the outfield grass. First baseman Ty Wigginton was playing a fairly normal first base, favoring the line, of course.

It was baseball's version of a 2-1-4 zone.

It also was unnecessary. Big Papi struck out swinging.

Was there some kind of cause-and-effect going on? Was Papi spooked by what he was seeing?

``You would always like to create some doubt in anyone's mind when you're competing," declared Devil Rays manager Joe Maddon before the game. ``Doubt is a great weapon."

The second time Papi came up involved a different situation. There were men on first and second with two out in the third inning. Huff had to remain at third. But Lugo moved two steps to the right of second base. Cantu dropped to about 20 feet onto the outfield grass.

Papi walked on a 3-2 pitch. Stalemate, I guess.

The Devil Rays' skipper says he's never seen a picture of the original Boudreau Shift on Ted Williams. He's just doing what comes naturally. ``It's not just Ortiz," he said. ``We do the same thing on [Jim] Thome and [Jason] Giambi."

Maddon says he can't understand why anyone wouldn't do it. ``The information is there," he said. ``Everyone has it. You pay for it, so you might as well use it. If you do something over and over and over again, and it's not working, then you're the fool."

In modern baseball, every pitch and every at-bat is charted, even by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (now that they're under new management, anyway). Joe Maddon can find out what David Ortiz has done in every at-bat, not just for this year but for the past fill-in-the-blank years. And one thing he knows is that Big Papi is not the same kind of hitter he was when he hit that Division Series-clinching home run off lefty Jarrod Washburn when Maddon was a coach for the Angels in 2004. And he is far from the same hitter he was when he broke into big league baseball in 1997.

The aforementioned home run was over The Wall. Papi used to work The Wall with more regularity than he does now. Were Maddon managing against the 1997 Ortiz, he would not be throwing up a radical shift. If he were managing against the early Papi, who knows? He might have his outfield shifted around to left.

``When he first came up with the Twinkies [that would be the Minnesota Twins]," Maddon said, ``he didn't pull the ball at all. You'd pound him inside because he wasn't going to pull the ball."

Wow. Who knew?

Now Papi has to look at four outfielders and a second baseman 30 feet onto the right-field grass.

``Unless they put somebody on the other side of the outfield fence, they won't be stopping him all the time," said Sox manager Terry Francona. ``People are going to try to do different things. It's just a sign of respect for Papi."

Francona knows the drill; don't you worry about that. Let's just say he doesn't exactly play Giambi straight up himself.

But Francona says he would never pull a Full Maddon, with four outfielders.

``You can do things with a young team," Francona said. ``I think if I told Mike Lowell to go out in left field, he's gonna tell me what to do."

Maddon does it because he thinks Ortiz is a truly great hitter. And Manny Ramírez makes two. He even suggested they might be the best 3-4 combo ever. (Let's hope the Babe and the Iron Horse don't take offense.)

The entire American League has watched David Ortiz evolve from a part-time player into our Big Papi. Maddon says he is the scariest kind of power hitter. ``He's like Barry Bonds, because he will take a walk," Maddon said. ``A lot of times during the course of the year the big power hitters will expand their strike zone. Not Ortiz, and not Manny, either. You can look at the numbers. They're both hot. There's no way they're expanding their strike zone."

Maddon doesn't even consider what he does a gamble. If Papi hits anything less than a double, he figures he's won the battle. ``If he hits a ground ball to the left side, that's OK," Maddon acknowledged. ``If he drops down a bunt," which he has done, ``God bless him."

The Full Maddon, the Modified Maddon (third baseman near second base, but three outfielders), and the various shifts employed by other skippers have had a definite effect on Ortiz's batting average (.273 after last night's 0 for 3).

``It may have cost him between 10 and 20 points, but the production is still there [26 homers and a league-leading 75 RBIs]," said Francona. ``Batting average usually has something to do with quality at-bats, things like that, and that's no factor with David. He can go 0 for 3 and then hit a three-run homer, which he's done."

What Joe Maddon knows is that David Ortiz is no longer likely to hit a fly ball or line drive to left (or left-center), a grounder to third, or a grounder to short. He is likely to hit a ground ball to the right side or a fly ball to center or right. So he intends to position his fielders accordingly.

``It's fun," he says of the managerial challenge. ``With my football background, it's fun for me. But if the information's there, use it. We're in the Age of Information. It's no longer the Industrial Revolution."

No, it's the Maddon Revolution, and with the Devil Rays in the same division as the Red Sox, Papi will be dealing with it for years to come.

But take a look at his final two at-bats.

The third at-bat was leading off the sixth. Ortiz faced the same alignment as in the third, the Modified Maddon. Papi flied meekly to center.

His final at-bat was in the eighth. Kevin Youkilis was on first with two away. Third baseman Huff moved to short. Shortstop Lugo moved to the second base side of second. Second baseman Cantu went 30 feet onto the outfield grass.

And Papi whiffed. The way Kazmir was pitching, who needed fielders?

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail is

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives