Blast from the past
Ortiz's first HR since '08 fuels Red Sox
The slump of David Ortiz had become the problem of the Red Sox, the issue hovering over his teammates, the clubhouse, everything. Terry Francona started grimacing at each mounting question about his designated hitter. Before last night's game, Kevin Youkilis told reporters to leave Ortiz alone. "Maybe talk about the weather or something," he said.
When Ortiz exhaled last night in an 8-3 victory, the Red Sox exhaled with him. His first home run of the season sparked a historic, homer-happy fifth inning before 38,099 at Fenway Park and served as the lodestone to Boston's whipping of the first-place Toronto Blue Jays, humbled twice in two nights and one loss from being swept to within an inch of second place.
Afterward, facing the media, Francona smiled and said, "Ask away." Julio Lugo asked no one in particular, "Did you guys see David Ortiz tonight?" A thorn of concern had become an incentive for celebration.
"Everybody has been pulling for him," said catcher Jason Varitek, who hit two home runs himself. "Things haven't been going well for him. He's been a guy and is a guy that can carry this team at times. So, yeah, it was a breath of fresh air for everybody."
Youkilis, on deck, thrust both hands in the air when Ortiz's first home run of the season - in his 136th at-bat of the year, against Toronto starter Brett Cecil - caromed off the back wall in left-center. Once the crowd finally calmed and Ortiz had retreated from his curtain call, Youkilis drilled a single. Jason Bay followed with a home run that landed in the parking lot behind the Green Monster, presumably with scorchmarks from reentering the atmosphere. Up came Mike Lowell, and he whaled a home run into the first row of the Monster seats.
The Blue Jays removed Cecil and summoned Shawn Camp. Rocco Baldelli - 0 for his last 14 - clobbered a line drive into the gap in left-center. He raced to third for a triple. Varitek, who led off the inning with a home run, struck out to end the inning.
That left the damage to be surveyed: a team-record four home runs in an inning, done for the 11th time and the first time since April 22, 2007, when they ripped four straight against the Yankees; five homers total off of Cecil, which matched a Blue Jays record; six runs; seven hits; one enormous burden lifted.
"I think everybody wanted it so bad," Bay said. "When that ball went up, there were more than a few people saying, 'Get up. Get up.' I think it was more about a teammate, a genuine caring. You know - 'Yes!' It helped everybody relax a little bit."
The night ended with the Red Sox 1 1/2 games out of first place (for what that's worth on May 21), having fired a salvo at Toronto in their first series of the season. The Blue Jays entered having avoided the Red Sox and Rays this season and had lost a series against the Yankees. They had taken first place in the American League East, but they have to wonder if they really control the division.
Varitek started the night's fireworks in the third inning, his at-bat a precursor to the haymakers to come. Varitek is on the team because of his defense, as he has repeated often. "My importance comes from what I wear," Varitek said, nodding to a bag of catching equipment. He still declines to talk about his hitting.
Any offense from Varitek is found money, but there has been a surprising amount this season. He launched a 2-2 pitch over the Green Monster, his sixth home run this season and his third batting righthanded. His seventh and fourth, respectively, would come later, when he rocked a homer to dead center.
Varitek had hit two home runs in one game seven times time before. The last time was Aug. 16, 2005. He hit only 13 last season. His seven ranks second among catchers in the major leagues. He's batting .243, "but it's the hardest [.243] I've ever seen," Sox starter Brad Penny said.
Penny made the offensive explosion count, with plenty of help from Jacoby Ellsbury. Penny allowed zero runs for his first six innings, then allowed two in the seventh, which he could not escape. Penny, the fifth starter, has five quality starts - the same as No. 1 Josh Beckett.
Penny's night might have been different if not for Ellsbury, whom Blue Jays batters may still be cursing this morning. The game's first ball put in play sent Ellsbury drifting back, and he snagged it. The second ball put in play forced Ellsbury to turn, sprint, and snare the ball just before running into the wall. The start was fitting. Ellsbury recorded nine of Penny's first 13 outs, and 10 of 17 overall. By the end of the game - which Ellsbury finished with a catch - he had 12 putouts, tying a major league record.
The Red Sox avoided any pesky Toronto outfielders by simply mashing the ball over the fence. Bay's bomb gave him 12 for the season, two off Carlos Peña's league lead. ("Too bad the far ones don't count any more than a run," Bay said.)
The one player in the middle of the Red Sox lineup who didn't hit a home run was one of the most promising developments of the night. Making his return from the 15-day disabled list, Youkilis went 3 for 5, all singles.
Youkilis returned at the perfect time. He had the best seat in Fenway for the season's loudest roar and happiest moment. He was the second player to wrap Ortiz in a bear hug once he crossed the plate, the first player to hit knowing Ortiz's homerless streak had become a dead issue. He walked to the plate hacking.
"You could see the sheer joy in the dugout," Francona said. "It was pretty special."
Adam Kilgore can be reached at email@example.com