Red Sox notebook

Improbable dream? Ortiz is back

Panama’s president, Ricardo Martinelli, threw out the ceremonial first pitch, and apparently it was a strike. Panama’s president, Ricardo Martinelli, threw out the ceremonial first pitch, and apparently it was a strike. (Bill Kostroun/Associated Press)
By Amalie Benjamin and Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / September 26, 2009

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NEW YORK - If David Ortiz is not back to his old self - gregarious and grinning in the clubhouse, mashing home runs in the batter’s box - then he is awfully close.

Ortiz, who last night belted his 27th home run, off Yankees starter Joba Chamberlain in the sixth inning, is closing in on benchmarks that seemed unthinkable after the first two months of the season, when his average hovered below .200 and his brooding walks back to the dugout became painful to watch. When Ortiz looks back over his tumultuous season, he can pinpoint the moment everything changed.

“When I started playing like it was Little League,’’ Ortiz said. “I’m serious. One day, I wake up, ‘OK. I guess I got nothing to lose anymore. I’m way behind what I normally am. So I go to the field today, I’m not going to give a [expletive]. I’m just going to act like I’m in Little League.’

“When you’re in Little League, you don’t do [expletive], basically. You just go and play baseball, right? At this level, it’s different. You come in, get your work in. I guess I was worried more about that, basically, than the ballgame.’’

Dave Magadan estimated the turnaround happened in late May, around the time Ortiz finally hit his first home run of the season, May 20. Ortiz has hit .266 with 25 home runs and 70 RBIs since June 6, with a .922 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage).

“He was kind of in the midst of one homer, hitting a buck-80,’’ Magadan said. “He was miserable because he felt like he was letting the team down, which says a lot about how he is. He’s got a lot of pride, and I just tried to instill in him that we all believe that he’s got a lot left in the tank.

“I saw the bat speed in batting practice. I know the guys are throwing 65 miles an hour, but you still have to generate some bat speed to hit the ball as far as he was hitting it in BP.

“He had a lot of stuff going on in his mind. So when we kind of just sat down, [I said] go out there and have fun . . . He had so much going on in his mind that he wasn’t allowing his talent to come through.’’

So they had a conversation - one of many Magadan recalls having during Ortiz’s slump - in which the message was that Ortiz needed to simplify his approach, his thoughts, everything. Ortiz was taking advice from just about everyone, especially other players from his native Dominican Republic. The ideas were getting to be too much. He just needed to stop.

“I think he takes advice almost too easily,’’ Magadan said. “He listens to a lot of people . . . That’s kind of what you have to fight as a hitting coach. You know people are trying to help. I likened it to being on the first tee of playing 18 holes and you’ve got 25 people in the tee box telling you how to hit the ball - you need a lighter club, you need a longer club, you need a bigger head, smaller head, you need to hit a 2-iron, you need to hit a wedge. It’s impossible to hit a golf ball [like that], and that’s kind of what he was going through as a hitter.’’

Ortiz echoed that sentiment: “My friends and family are always coming at me with different points. But I really got that, I guess, one day from Magadan. He told me I was getting advice from everybody, every time I take a bad swing or had a bad game.’’

Ortiz has more home runs than any American League player since May 20, and his 79 RBIs in that span lead the Red Sox. Last night’s homer was his third in three games.

“Everybody was writing him off,’’ Magadan said. “Then you had thrown in for good measure being put on the [performance-enhancing drug] list. Every road game that we have there’s people yelling at him about that. If he hits a deep fly ball that doesn’t go out, it’s aww, you would have hit that out two years ago, stuff like that. It makes you understand why he is who he is and why he’s so beloved in the New England area.

“It’s easy to be a real nice guy when things are going great, you’re hitting game-winners, but when your back’s up against the wall, you’re being doubted really for the first time in a long time, it shows a lot about the type of person and player he is.’’

So, now that he’s taken Magadan’s advice to heart, now that he’s embraced the Little Leaguer within, is Ortiz the most ferocious Little Leaguer ever?

“Yeah, he is,’’ Magadan said. “He’s looking like one of those Taiwanese kids from the mid-80s.’’

Wild party
Manager Terry Francona said the Sox would celebrate clinching the wild card, regardless of location, even if the AL East hasn’t been sewn up.

“Because we were fortunate enough to win six years ago and then a couple years ago, why in the world would we not be happy if we’re fortunate enough to go back to the playoffs,’’ he said.

“I never did quite understand that. What we don’t need to do is choreograph anything. That’s the part I think you need to stay away from . . . What I’d like us to do is play good and if there comes a moment when we’re able to celebrate, do whatever you feel like doing.’’

Okajima sidelined
Hideki Okajima was sent back to Boston yesterday with soreness in his right side, which he first experienced in Kansas City. The Sox had determined that they were not going to pitch Okajima in this series anyway, and decided that he should return to Boston for acupuncture. “He does this, I don’t want to say a lot, from time to time and they couldn’t get [the acupuncturist] down here,’’ Francona said. “We just don’t want to turn something that’s sore into something that ends up being an injury.’’ Okajima last pitched Wednesday, throwing a scoreless inning with a walk and a strikeout. . . Jon Lester allowed five earned runs last night. He had allowed a total of five earned runs in four previous starts in the Bronx . . . Victor Martinez extended his hitting streak to 24 games with a home run in the fourth inning. It was his 22d homer of the season. The streak is the Sox’ longest since Manny Ramirez had a 27-game stretch in 2006 . . . Though Dustin Pedroia’s 16-game hitting streak came to an end, he did steal his 20th base. That made him only the second Sox second baseman with at least 20 steals in multiple seasons. Amby McConnell did it in 1908 and 1909.

Home, deep, home
Alex Rodriguez’s two-run homer off Lester in the third inning last night was the Yankees’ 127th at their new stadium, breaking the franchise’s home record. According to STATS, the Yankees hit 126 homers at old Yankee Stadium in 2004 and 2005. This season, the Yankees set the record in just 76 games . . . The Sox have lost five straight at Yankee Stadium . . . Despite his success against Chamberlain (7 for 15), Mike Lowell was not in the starting lineup. Francona said he didn’t want to risk putting too much strain on Lowell’s hip, given the team’s arrival at their hotel at 4:30 a.m. . . . The New York Daily News ran caricatures of three central members to this weekend’s series on its back cover yesterday: a giant CC Sabathia in the middle, flanked by Chamberlain on the right and a tiny, sad-faced Pedroia on the left. In the drawing, Pedroia was holding a bat about twice his size. Asked if he had seen the back cover, Pedroia smiled wide, laughed, and said, “It’s great.’’

Tony Massarotti of the Globe staff contributed. Material from the Associated Press was used.

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