Sunday, September 27, 2009

In some ways, Ortiz was never out of style

(This story only appeared in the print edition of Sunday's UL.)

NEW YORK – David Ortiz sat at his locker late Friday night, showered and changed and ready to go. The last thing he did was lean over to lace up an ostentatious pair of blue shoes.

Ortiz couldn’t always pull off his blue shoes. Big Papi might be Big Papi, but blue shoes make a certain statement you can’t really make when half your team’s fan base is calling for your indefinite benching. But no one is calling for that benching anymore.

Ortiz often walks into the Red Sox locker room these days making a far less subtle fashion statement: He wears a navy blue shirt adorned with the slogan, “Don’t call it a comeback.” It’s a lyric from LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out,” and the meaning as it applies to Ortiz isn’t exactly subtle: “Don’t call it a comeback/I been here for years.”

Ortiz, with an almost inexplicable lack of fanfare, has turned what looked like a disastrous season into something more than respectable: His 27 home runs entering play Saturday rank him behind only 17 hitters in the American League – and within striking distance of names like Joe Mauer and Alex Rodriguez.

Before going hitless on Sunday, he’d hit home runs in three straight games. Against Joba Chamberlain on Friday, he deposited a fastball on the outside corner into the left-field grandstand at Yankee Stadium. It was the first opposite-field home run he’d hit away from Fenway Park this season.

But his midsummer resurgence isn’t entirely a comeback, either. In some ways, he’s done for the Red Sox lineup this season just what he’s always done. He’s drawing walks at the same rate as he did in 2003 and 2004, and he’s seeing more pitches per at-bat this season than at any point in his Red Sox tenure.

“When I hit, good things happen,” he said. “I guess sometimes I take pressure off the guys when I do my thing out there.”

He spoke at length before Friday’s game about how a switch back to his Little League mindset had resurrected his joy for the game and eased his mind amidst the tumult around him. Easing his mind, certainly, had something to do with the surge in his production.

But his approach at the plate never really changed. The refusal of pitchers to give him anything to hit never changed. The fact that he could grind out six- or seven-pitch at-bats never changed.

Only 15 hitters in the American League have seen fewer pitches in the strike zone this season than Ortiz, and only five have seen more pitches per plate appearance than he has.

That’s a testament to his refusal to surrender to the slump. Not every hitter can stay that patient when frustration mounts with every out and with every swing and miss.

“You’re fighting yourself: ‘Man, that was my pitch,’” said left fielder Jason Bay, who endured his own slump right around the time Ortiz was heating up. “All of a sudden, boom, there’s another one, and then you’re way behind. It happens to everybody, but when you’re scuffling, it makes it even tougher because you know you’re only going to get a pitch or two per at-bat to put a good swing on. If you take it or miss it, you’re 0-2 before you even step in.”

Only the results were lacking.

“Part of our fight early on was to be patient,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. “People were calling for David to retire, to pack it in. There were a lot of nasty things said about him – and he had a really bad two months.”

But the Red Sox stuck with him. Part of the reason was because he still was getting on base: Among Red Sox players, only Dustin Pedroia drew more walks than Ortiz in the month of May – even while the designated hitter was hitting .143.

Ortiz actually reached base via hit, walk or hit-by-pitch in 21 straight games in late April and early May, right in the middle of his slump. He drove in 11 runs and scored 11 runs in that span.

“If you’re not getting hits, you’re still trying to get on base or drive a guy in with a groundout or something, anything you can do,” Bay said. “Over the course of a season, there’s not too many guys who are going to be right here” – he drew a horizontal line in the air – “with a hit or two a game. It’s hots and colds, and for some people, it’s hotter and colder.”

Ortiz, all of a sudden, has the same batting average this September that he had in September of 2006, and he has an better OPS (on-base plus slugging) in September than he did a year ago.
It’s not a comeback. He’s been doing that for years.

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