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Papi returning to form just in time?

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  September 18, 2008 09:57 AM

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Last week, after Jonathan Papelbon blew a 4-3 lead to these same Rays, the Red Sox came to bat in the bottom of the ninth inning at Fenway Park. After Mark Kotsay walked, Jason Varitek stepped up to hit and Ortiz moved into the on-deck circle. What happened next might have been the most revealing moment in Ortiz's entire 2008 season: Varitek attempted to sacrifice on two occasions for a team that all but breaks into a rash anytime someone squares to bunt.

In retrospect, one of two possibilities existed, and neither reflected particularly well on Ortiz:

a.) either the Red Sox were willing to sacrifice Ortiz's at-bat in the form of an intentional walk, with the game on the line, to put the bat in the hands of Coco Crisp, or;

b.) the Rays would have been willing to face him with the tying run in scoring position of a key divisional affair.

Were Ramirez still behind Ortiz, we would have marveled yet again at how the Red Sox had backed their opponent into a corner in the late innings of a close game. But without Ramirez -- who even in this instance would not have been hitting behind Ortiz because Ortiz was inserted into the No. 9 hole as a pinch hitter -- the writing was on the wall for anyone who cared to notice. Even if opponents still regarded Ortiz as the fearsome, intimidating force he once was . . . the Red Sox did not.

Then came last night, when Ortiz hit two homers against Rays starter Matt Garza, both blasts jacked toward the roof of Tropicana Field as if launched from Cape Canaveral. The second never came down at all. By the time Ortiz came to bat in the fifth inning with two men on base of what was then an 8-3 Tampa lead, his prowess had so sufficiently been restored -- at least for a night -- that Rays manager Joe Maddon was willing to yank Garza with the pitcher one out short of a victory with a five-run lead.

"It isn't about Garza's won-loss record," Maddon told reporters after the game. "It's about the Rays' won-loss record."

And so in came the fireballing Grant Balfour, against whom Ortiz took a succession of mighty swings before flying out to deep center field.

Later in the game, against lefthander J.P. Howell with the game decided, Ortiz hit a deep fly to right, finishing with two homers on a night when he did not finish far from four.

"My hand's been feeling good the past few days," Ortiz said when asked about his performance. "Hopefully it will stay like that for a while."

Should that prove to be the case, we all understand the potential impact. After beginning his Red Sox playoff career by going 0 for 16 with six strikeouts against the Oakland A's in 2003, Ortiz hit what proved to a game-winning double against Keith Foulke in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the ALDS. Beginning with that plate appearance, he has since batted .338 in the postseason and slugged .649 with 11 home runs, 13 doubles, and 30 walks in 39 games, during which the Red Sox have gone 26-13 and won two world titles. In 2004, Ortiz was named MVP of the ALCS; last year, in 14 games, he had 17 hits, 16 runs scored, 14 walks and 10 RBIs.

Naturally, all of those numbers came with Ramirez hitting behind him, though that only magnifies the point: The Sox need Ortiz now more than ever. While pitching was at the root of Wednesday's loss, the Sox also played the game without Mike Lowell, J.D. Drew, Jason Bay, and Jason Varitek. Assuming health -- and that is a very big assumption at the moment -- the Red Sox will have a much deeper batting order when they take the field in October, when a healthy and productive Ortiz could change the lineup the way a healthy and focused Ramirez did a year ago.

That said, Ortiz is not all the way there yet; he still seems to have some doubts. His wrist feels good on some days, less so on others. He said flying seems to intensify the problem. At the same time, remember that the Red Sox have been in firm control of a playoff spot for some time and veteran players like Ortiz are focused on one thing -- October -- so maybe it is not coincidence that Ortiz suddenly seems to be swinging with more aggressiveness and confidence as autumn nears.

"That's what I'm looking for," Ortiz said in an otherwise empty clubhouse when asked whether he thought he could be consistent in October. "It's good to feel like that right now, but this [stuff] is subject to change. [The wrist] is something I try not think about. I would say that most of the time, it's not even there. I'm the kind of guy that -- I look forward to being in the lineup."

Look forward two weeks.

What happens if he really starts to hit?

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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