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Led by David Ortiz, Red Sox starting to fight back

Posted by Steve Silva, Boston.com Staff  June 22, 2012 09:42 AM

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David Ortiz spoke honestly and pointedly, devoid of the emotional bluster that often distorts the message, and he earned that right a long, long time ago. In the baseball world, Boston has indeed become "the (expletive)hole it used to be," the Red Sox dragging us all back to a seemingly bygone time and place.

Of course, with a few more nights like Thursday night at Fenway Park, that will all change.

And so it was quite a series of hours at Fenway Park on Thursday, Ortiz first venting about his own plight and media negativity, the Red Sox then going out and doing all anyone has ever asked of them: play together and fight to the end. Boston overcame deficits of 3-0 and 5-3 to defeat the Miami Marlins, completing the club's first home sweep of at least a three-game series since wiping out the Seattle Mariners last July.

A landmark night? You bet it was, with Will Middlebrooks spraying hits all around the ballpark and Ryan Kalish busting his hump around the bases. What the Red Sox enjoyed at Fenway on Thursday was perhaps their most inspiring and memorable win of the season, the kind of win that makes most everyone stand up and take notice.

On many levels, the Red Sox sounded and looked like a hungry team at Fenway, and that kind of edge has been lacking for more than a while.

Let's explain:

Ortiz is obviously frustrated by a good many things that have been taking place at Fenway in recent years and months, his own situation clearly among them. For the last three years now, Ortiz essentially has been playing on one-year contracts. He clearly regards this as a slight. In the event Ortiz has forgotten, he was a free agent last fall, able to accept any and all multiyear offers from any club in the game. He chose to accept arbitration from the Red Sox instead. He was rewarded with a $14.5 million salary that is the highest of his career, and his continued excellence will ensure another pay raise in 2013.

Does everyone remember the last time Ortiz played with any kind of contractual security? That came in 2009, when Ortiz had easily the worst of his 10 seasons in Boston. He hit .230 in April, .143 in May, .238 for the season. Another bad start in April 2010 prompted rumors about Ortiz' potential release from the Red Sox, all before Ortiz turned things around and began hitting far more like we have grown accustomed to.

Since that time, a funny thing has happened: Ortiz has posted a higher OPS than Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun. Only four other qualifying players in the game -- Jose Bautista, Josh Hamilton, Joey Votto and Miguel Cabrera -- rank ahead of Ortiz in that category. David Ortiz generally has played like a man on a personal mission, which is more than we can say for some of his teammates.

But then, isn't that really what has been at the core of these Red Sox' problems in the last several months? Take a good look at the players who excelled last night and this season. Cody Ross. Ryan Sweeney. Scott Atchison. Alfredo Aceves. Add in Middlebrooks, Kalish, Saltalamacchia, and Mike Aviles -- not to mention a host of others -- and all of the Sox' best performers are either operating on one-year contracts or trying to establish themselves (or both), an element the 2011 Sox clearly lacked.

The lone exception in all of this appears Kevin Youkilis, whose deal is set to expire at the end of this year. From the very start of spring training, Youkilis had a great deal to play for this year, which makes his struggles all the more worrisome. (Maybe he's just done.)

We've said this before and we'll say it again: Any good team needs a combination of youth and experience, less proven players and more established ones. The former don't know any better but to treat every game as their last. The latter provide balance and perspective during difficult times. Part of the reason the Red Sox lost last year is because they seemed to treat every September loss as an independent occurrence, unaware (or in denial) that their season was slipping away from them.

Remember who nearly saved the Sox last year? Ryan Lavarnway, who hit two homers in Game 161, the Red Sox' 90th and last win of the season.

As an established veteran with two World Series titles and nearly 400 career home runs, maybe winning is not as important to Ortiz as it used to be. Maybe it is not as important to Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, or John Lackey, either. Maybe the Red Sox needed to suffer through last September and much (or all of this season) before recognizing just how frustrating losing is, something Boston's mercurial fan base remembered all too clearly last September.

Before 2003, after all, this was the "(expletive)hole" Ortiz described it as -- at least when the Red Sox were losing. Players like Ortiz just never experienced it. The reason that all changed is because men like Ortiz came in and changed the culture, played to prove themselves, played to alter a history, mentality and negativity that had enveloped Fenway Park.

Now? Ortiz seems to be playing with a purpose again, as are many of his younger teammates, who are blowing down the Fenway Park baselines like a brisk Back Bay wind. Maybe the Sox will surprise us this year and maybe they will not. But likes of Middlebrooks, Kalish, and Felix Doubront seem intent to die trying, which makes them a heck of lot easier to stand behind.

As for Ortiz, whatever his selfish motives, he is producing.

After all, for a man who seems to be souring on Boston, he still seems to want that long-term contract.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

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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