ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- On Tuesday night, Julio Lugo, the Tampa Bay shortstop, was lined up in the second baseman's plot of land, playing the Joe Maddon Shift, when David Ortiz lost a baseball in the seats. In the fifth inning last night, Lugo was playing a modified shift, with Mark Loretta on base, when Ortiz made a James Shields changeup disappear into a chairback in left-center. In the ninth last night, with the Sox clinging to a 6-5 lead and the bases full, Lugo was playing his conventional position when Ortiz calmly but violently went down to get a Shawn Camp sinker and turned it into a souvenir.
No matter his vantage point, Lugo's seeing the same thing.
``He's just an unbelievable hitter, the best I've seen live," Lugo said of Ortiz, whose two home runs gave him 29, to go along with 82 RBIs, a pace that computes to 57 homers and 160 RBIs over a full season. ``He stays back on the ball and crushes it, no matter where we play him. That's why he's David Ortiz."
Ortiz last night stood at his locker, after knocking in half of the Sox' runs in a 12-5 win that helped avoid a four-game sweep at the hands of the suddenly dangerous Devil Rays. He slipped into jeans and a T-shirt that fit like Saran wrap. He put on a diamond-studded wristband, watch, earrings, and chain, the one with ``DO 34" encrusted in diamonds. Then, in stark contrast, he slipped on a gold, green, and red visor, as if he were about to head up to Gannon Municipal in Lynn and hack around for a few holes. The choice of clothing, no matter how bizarre, is, as he would put it, ``how we roll."
Has anyone ever been more comfortable in his own skin, be it at his locker or at the plate?
``I'm happy to walk to the plate any time I see the bases loaded," he said. ``I like it, for some reason. What do you think?"
Ah, yes. He was comfortable last night because he outthought the opposing pitcher. In Ortiz's initial two at-bats, Shields, a 24-year-old rookie, got Ortiz out on changeups -- a pop up and a line out into the shift. The third at-bat Ortiz went up looking changeup and got it, immediately.
``He should know I'm making adjustments," Ortiz said. ``My third at-bat, I said, `Well, I'm going to wait a little bit longer [on the pitch].' He fell in love with the same pitch."
Ortiz hammered it to left for just his third opposite-field homer of the season among the 28 he'd hit to that point. That two-run shot upped the Sox' lead to 5-1 in what turned into a demolition (home run) derby. The teams combined for seven home runs, accounting for 13 of the 17 runs.
Manny Ramírez, in the first, with Kevin Youkilis aboard, lashed at a belt-high, full-count fastball for homer No. 24 of his season, and a 2-0 lead.
Tampa Bay's Aubrey Huff, batting cleanup despite 4-for-42 (.095) career numbers against Tim Wakefield, homered leading off the bottom of the fourth, shaving the lead to 2-1.
The Sox expanded that to 5-1 in the fifth. Doug Mirabelli, leading off, cranked a home run to left. Ortiz, with two outs and Loretta on base, homered.
The 5-1 lead did not stand for long. Carl Crawford, with two outs in the bottom of the inning, homered into the catwalk in right. The word ``into" applies because the ball never came down. It was, according to the Devil Rays, the sixth fair ball hit into a Tropicana Field catwalk this season, half of those coming in this four-game series. That cut it to 5-2.
Mirabelli, with two outs in the sixth, singled for his second hit of the game. Before last night, he had just eight hits in 55 at-bats. The Sox' backup catcher, in 2004, hit .281 with a homer every 17.8 at-bats. Since the beginning of 2005, last night not included, he was batting .202 with a homer every 30.4 at-bats.
With much exertion he came all the way around to score on Alex Gonzalez's triple to right-center. That was just the seventh three-base hit by a Sox player this season. Five players -- the Mets' Jose Reyes (12), San Diego's Dave Roberts (8), San Francisco's 41-year-old Steve Finley (8), Seattle's Jose Lopez (7), and Crawford (7) -- have at least as many as the Sox do as a team. Sox 6, Devil Rays 2.
Huff, again making Maddon look as intelligent as his professorial spectacles would suggest, doubled off Wakefield to begin the Tampa Bay sixth and scored when Jorge Cantu turned on a knuckleball that hung over the inside corner of the plate. His two-run shot pulled Tampa Bay within 6-4 and bounced Wakefield after 90 pitches and five innings-plus (4 H, 4 R, 3 BBs, 3 K's, 3 HRs).
The appearance was Wakefield's briefest since his nightmarish season debut, when he lasted just 3 2/3 innings April 4 at Texas. Wakefield, who has battled a sore lower back, contended with a similar problem last night.
``I didn't feel 100 percent," he said. ``I tried to grind it out to get through the sixth and couldn't do it."
The pain he's feeling, he said, ``is in a different spot now. Before it was my lower back. Now it's between my scapula and my spine. There's a knot there . . . I can't finish my pitches when I need to."
Wakefield said he'll decide upon returning home Monday for the All-Star break whether he should see a doctor.
Despite leaving with a tenuous lead he did manage the win, improving to 7-8 with a 4.05 ERA.
Sox manager Terry Francona, who has committed to using the youngsters in his bullpen over the last three weeks -- case in point: Rudy Seanez hasn't pitched in July -- went to Craig Hansen, who'd fanned all three batters he faced Wednesday night. He began by whiffing Jonny Gomes and lasted 1 2/3 innings, walking one batter in the sixth and one in the seventh.
``This has definitely given me a boost of confidence," he said, of being given more responsibility.
With two outs in the seventh, and Lugo (walk, steal) on second base, Francona lifted Hansen for lefty Javier Lopez against the lefthanded-hitting Huff. He singled sharply to right, for his third hit and second RBI, closing the gap to 6-5. Francona turned it over to Manny Delcarmen, who was impressive in striking out Cantu to end the inning.
Following a scoreless eighth the Sox turned it on in the ninth. Gonzalez, who with three hits upped his average to .272, led off with a single. Youkilis, on a hit and run, then lunged at an outside pitch and knocked it into the hole at second base, with Gonzalez taking third. Loretta walked. And Ortiz struck. The Sox scored two more after the slam, sending 11 batters to the plate in the inning.
``That was awesome, but how we get there is even better," Francona said. ``Youk put the bat on the ball on a hit and run that's out of the strike zone. That set up the whole inning."
With that the Sox secured the win and avoided being swept in a four-game series. The last time that happened: September 1998.
``I've never been so happy to get out of here with a win in my life," Francona said.