Monday, April 20, 2009

Francona, too, preaches optimism with Ortiz

Like hitting coach Dave Magadan on Sunday, Red Sox manager Terry Francona today preached patience with struggling superstar David Ortiz.

"Right now, you're seeing a guy that's in-between -- the fastballs are getting by him, and he's ahead of the breaking ball," he said. "Hitting can be intricate when it's going bad, and it can be easy when it's going good -- or simplified. You hear every hitter, just about, when they're going well, they'll tell you the same thing: 'Boy, I'm just seeing the ball good.' They don't think about a whole lot else.

"When you're not going good, you see where the umpire is behind the pitcher, you see the rosin bag, you see the scoreboard, you see the camera. You see everything but the ball. Everything looks fast. Once you get to a position where you hit the ball in a good position and you square it up, everything seems to slow down. I don't know why exactly that is. We've all been through it, and it can be awful -- and it can be really good. Just as awful (as it is), it can get that good. That's what the uniqueness of hitting is: Guys get to their level. They just don't always do it in the most consistent manner."

Big Papi remains in the lineup today to face 6-foot-10 lefty Mark Hendrickson, a pitcher with an arsenal of off-speed pitches and a fastball that isn't going to hit 90 miles an hour very often. Big lefties and breaking balls both can give Ortiz trouble; he's a .211 career hitter against Hendrickson and has as many strikeouts (four) as hits.

"I actually think that'll be good for him because it'll force him to really stay on the ball," Francona said. "You hear lefties say all the time that if you cheat a little bit, you don't just make an out -- they can embarrass you. It'll be really good to make David stay on the ball. That doesn't mean he's going to 4-for-4, but I do think that'll be good for him."

A year ago, 12 games into the season, Ortiz was hitting .070 and slugging .140; he had three hits (including a home run) in 43 at-bats and had struck out 10 times.

Over his next eight games, though, including the April 21 Patriots' Day game, Ortiz went 11-for-36 (.306) with two doubles and a grand-slam home run to go along with 12 RBI.

"This game is very mental," Ortiz said then in reaction to a day off given him by Francona. "Your mind takes over. I can tell you myself, I know that in my situation, my mind works more than everything else because it's been like that my whole career. I think, mentally, the percentage is more of what you use in the game than physically.

"This game, after you get prepared physically, you let the mind take over. Sometimes when you're fighting, fighting, fighting, fighting, this is the time when the mind gets some time off and regroups and goes back to normal. If you just keep on hitting and hitting and hitting, it takes longer for you to recover or whatever. I guess that's why managers make those kinds of decisions with their players. You can see the results later on."

And a year before that, in 2007, Ortiz was 6-for-29 (.207) through eight games. He then went 12-for-31 with four home runs and 13 RBI in his next eight games. In his career, Ortiz has a .259 batting average and a .350 on-base percentage in April, his worst numbers of any month.

Heck, Carlos Delgado was hitting .186 with a .263 slugging percentage and 18 strikeouts in his first 23 games; he was 36 years old and, it seemed, washed up. He hit .285 and slugged .563 the rest of the way.

The precedent is there. At a certain point, though, age catches up with every player. Many have speculated that when a fastball hitter swinging and missing at 87-mile-an-hour fastball, his time might be nearing.

But Francona abruptly dismissed any suggestion that Ortiz is close to finished.

"You would be ahead of me on that one," he said to his questioner. "I don't even know how to answer that because I think he's got so much more offense left in him. He's just having a tough time right now."

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