Pitching and defense win championships, but nobody needs to remind the Boston Red Sox that two guys carrying super sized bats in the middle of the order had a little something to do with winning the World Series in 2004.
David Ortiz and World Series MVP Manny Ramírez were ferocious hitters who shredded the confidence of some of the best pitchers in baseball.
And although both checked out at the All-Star break with decent numbers, they clearly did not elicit the same fearful respect from opponents. Ortiz has yet to hit a homer against a lefthander and batted .246 in the final 18 games before the break. Ramírez, who checked out at .284 with 11 homers, was a troublesome 8 for 46 (.174) in the final 14 games before the respite.
Was a 35-year old Ramírez suddenly too old? And was Ortiz hurt? What was wrong with Boston's sluggers?
The short answer last night: Nothing. Ortiz and Ramírez propelled the Red Sox to a 7-4 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays and looked, well, in midseason form.
Against that backdrop, Ortiz revealed after the game he has a torn meniscus in his right knee, the result of an injury he suffered last June, when he caught his foot in the netting at Yankee Stadium in batting practice. Ortiz said he "played through it" for the remainder of 2006; a season, you will recall, in which he belted a career-high 54 homers. Ortiz said once he stopped playing, the pain went away, which is why he did not feel the need to have a procedure done during the offseason.
Yet the knee began bothering him "from the beginning" of 2007, and has been sore, he said, for much of the season. The injury has impeded him from using his legs properly and, he admitted, may affect his ability to hit for power. But Ortiz said he has no current plans to undergo surgery.
"I don't want to get under the knife," he said. "I think I'll be fine. I have days when I feel fine. And then I have days like [tonight], when I do a lot of running, and it gets sore."
Ortiz said he had "a couple" of MRIs last season that revealed the tear, but it did not concern the medical staff enough to take action. He said he will receive treatment for the rest of the season, and if the knee does not improve, will look into surgery during the winter.
"I'm not getting inflammation right now," he said. "If I get inflammation, then I might have to consider something . . . the cold weather might affect me. I start feeling better right after I warm up. It didn't bother me at all in spring training."
Ortiz conceded his inability to crouch in his stance as low as he'd like may explain why he hasn't hit as many home runs this season.
"I use my legs a lot to hit," he said. "I put a lot of pressure on my knees. When it starts bothering me, it makes me stand up a little different. It makes it harder to drive the ball."
If Big Papi was hurting last night, he certainly didn't let on. He and Ramírez combined for the two most critical hits of the game, in the seventh, to stretch Boston's lead and provide Tim Wakefield, who submitted his usual, redoubtable knuckleball package, with his 10th win of the season.
Wakefield was cruising along with a comfortable 5-2 lead until he surrendered back-to-back homers to the vexing Matt Stairs and All-Star Home Run Derby runner-up Alex Rios in the sixth.
All of a sudden that cozy cushion had been reduced to one run, and when Julio Lugo and J.D. Drew went down quietly in the bottom of the inning, the Sox were in need of a little spark. Dustin Pedroia provided it by hustling out an infield hit, bringing Big Papi to the plate.
Ortiz, who had already singled sharply twice against starter Roy Halladay, took measure of reliever Brian Tallet, then cranked a fly ball to deep center field over the head of Vernon Wells. Pedroia motored home and Ortiz chugged into second easily.
Ramírez followed with a missile up the middle, easily scoring Ortiz. Suddenly, the cushion was 7-4, and the Ortiz-Ramírez tandem had produced 5 hits, 5 RBIs, and 3 runs.
It was a welcome explosion of production from two key members of this ball club, around which the rest of the lineup is built.
"When we have a night like that," Ortiz said, "it lets people know that we're still here."
Discussion of knee trouble, MRIs, potential surgery, and an Ortiz power outage cast a pall over Fenway as the Sox kicked off the second half of the season with the best record in baseball and a gaudy 10-game lead over the Blue Jays and Yankees.
Hey, we New Englanders need our daily dose of angst. That, and a crock of clam chowder, is what sustains us through the long, cold, barren Celtics/Bruins winters.
Any kind of prolonged Big Papi absence would truly have a chilling effect on this club, particularly with Ramírez submitting a subpar (for him) first half in which he managed to knock in just 45 runs, only five more than Lugo. It remains mind-boggling that Tigers manager Jim Leyland actually walked Ortiz three times in the same game and Ramírez didn't find a way to torment him for it. Ramírez (this just in) may be quirky, but he is a tireless worker who has us conditioned to believe he will come up with that clutch hit any moment -- while maintaining his usual nonchalant, Alfred E. Neuman, What, Me Worry? stance. Although Ramírez appeared unfazed by Leyland's tactics and his inability to expose them, methinks he cares about that (and his .239 average with runners in scoring position before last night) more than he lets on.
"Manny doesn't let anything bother him," observed center fielder Coco Crisp. "A lot of guys wish they could be like that. I'm sure on the inside things might get to him, but he's not going to show it."
Ortiz wears his emotions on his massive sleeve. He hinted at knee trouble during the All-Star break, but manager Terry Francona quelled fears about Ortiz's health before the game by announcing there would be no tests, no surgery, no MRIs, no nothing, just a slugger who would fight through an injury that will likely dog him intermittently through October.
"I'm OK, bro," Ortiz said before the game. "Don't worry about me."
Sorry, Big Papi, but forgive us if we do. You are the pulse of this team, both in the lineup and in the clubhouse. It seems logical that Ortiz would have fixed this ailing knee last winter, but the slugger insisted the pain subsided -- disappeared, in fact -- once he stopped playing. Still, you have to wonder if he would have been wise to take care of this a month -- or two -- ago, when there was plenty of time to recover. What happens if he starts experiencing inflammation in August and can't fight through it?
There's no question Big Papi's troublesome knee will continue to be a topic. It didn't help when he fouled a Brian Wolfe pitch off his knee in the eighth and crumpled over in pain. But Ortiz stayed in, struck out, then went to the dugout and enjoyed the win.
"I'm OK," he declared.
OK for now, anyway.
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail is email@example.com.