Sunday, April 19, 2009

A glimmer of hope for Ortiz

A hit or two, all by itself, doesn't necessarily indicate a player is coming out of a slump. When you hit .100, after all, you're still going to get a hit every 10 at-bats.

But there's still a glimmer of hope you can draw from the two hits David Ortiz collected on Saturday.

For all the trouble Big Papi is having against fastballs this year, he had more trouble last year against breaking pitches. According to Inside Edge, Inc., stats, he hit .283 on fastballs a year ago but just .191 on curves and .130 on sliders. Against righthanded pitchers, he hit .306 against fastballs, .190 against curves and .105 against sliders.

Both of Big Papi's hits against righty Adam Eaton on Saturday came on breaking balls. He waited back on a 74-mile-an-hour curve on the outside corner in the third inning and hit a line drive to left field. The very next inning, he pounced on a curveball over the middle of the plate and yanked it over the overshift in the infield for another base hit.

"We'll take anything we can get," manager Terry Francona said. "But even throwing a hit (to left field), that makes you feel better -- and then he goes after that one and hits a line drive to right field. I do think that helps."

But Francona didn't want to read too much into the fact that his designated hitter had collected both of his hits on breaking balls.

"We'd be starting to get a little bit involved there," he said. "You'd have to ask David if, on a particular at-bat, he's sitting on a particular pitch. I certainly wouldn't tell him -- and with two strikes, guys are mostly just looking for the ball."

(The single to left field came on an 0-2 count; the single to right field came on an 0-1 count.)

This reporter didn't have a chance to ask. Ortiz was showered and dressed and heading out of the locker room just as reporters made it downstairs from the session with Francona. But his teammates didn't hesitatate to voice confidence on his behalf.

"David, he's going to come around," first baseman Kevin Youkilis said. "He's just started off slow, and it looks a lot worse because it's the beginning of the season. If this was August, no one would probably even pay attention. The big thing is that we've got a long way to go, and he's going to be a big part of this team. He's got to keep going out and plugging away, and he'll be fine."

Said catcher Jason Varitek, "David's going to hit. It's just a matter of time."

Big Papi still can't seem to catch up with the hard stuff. Against Jeremy Guthrie on Friday, he struck out on a 94-mile-an-hour fastball up and in back in the first inning; he popped to third in the fifth inning on virtually the same pitch. When reliever Matt Albers threw him a 94-mile-an-hour fastball right over the middle of the plate in the seventh inning, all he could do was foul it off.

But, as noted in this space on Saturday, even that has its advantages.

No Red Sox player has seen more pitches per plate appearance (4.59) than Ortiz -- even though he's seen more strikes (61 percent) than anyone else who hits in the heart of the order. A year ago, only J.D. Drew saw more pitches per plate appearance (4.16) than Ortiz (4.03).

And it took Eaton seven pitches to strike Ortiz out in the first inning on Saturday.

Clearly, anyone would rather get singles than strike out. But if you're going to have a guy in the heart of your order who's averaging a whiff a game, as the Red Sox seem determined to do, at least he's giving everyone else a chance to see what the opposing pitcher's got -- especially Kevin Youkilis, waiting in the on-deck circle with perhaps the hottest bat in the American League.

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