BOSTON – David Ortiz is broken. He is not Big Papi. He is Little Puppy, the October dog, lost at the plate in the time and place that's supposed to be his.
Without him, the Boston Red Sox, too, are directionless. They lost again Monday night, this time at Fenway Park, and the most harrowing part of the 9-1 defeat that gave the Tampa Bay Rays a 2-1 advantage in the American League Championship Series wasn't how the Rays launched four home runs or made Jon Lester look ordinary or rode their starter, Matt Garza, for six sterling innings.
It was Boston's red supergiant evolving into a black hole.
As if it weren't difficult enough to watch Manny Ramirez – Ortiz's partner in crime, the Ruth to his Gehrig – assault the record books wearing a Los Angeles Dodgers uniform, Ortiz has forced the Red Sox to swallow a jagged pill: They can't rely on him so much as hope a season-long slump, only exacerbated in the playoffs, somehow abates.
There are no signs. Ortiz is hitless in 10 at-bats in the ALCS. He is 4-for-27 this postseason. He has not hit a home run in 54 playoff at-bats. He is popping pitches up and meekly grounding out and flailing like a guy who doesn't know how to swim and got tossed into the Boston Harbor. One scout, after Game 3, called him "totally lost."
Perhaps his bum wrist is making the clicking noise he reported earlier this season. Maybe it's another ailment.
Ortiz didn't talk Monday. What could he say?
"When he does get hot, it'll certainly be welcome," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "At the same time, when certain guys aren't hitting, you just expect somebody else to pick up the slack. That's how we've always felt. We're not going to live and die on one guy."
Actually, the Red Sox have lived and died with two guys, Ramirez and Ortiz, in the runs to their two championships this decade. Sure, the complementary pieces turned the Red Sox into a machine, but cog Nos. 1 and 2 were Manny and Papi, the most devastating postseason hitters since Reggie Jackson.
Now one is in Los Angeles and the other the subject of a missing persons report.
"It is surprising, and it's a little fluky, too," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "It's not like we're going to always shut this guy down. If this guy comes out and gets four base hits, I'm not going to be like, 'Oh, Jesus, what'd we do wrong?' Every at-bat he goes without a hit, I feel like it increases the likelihood he's going to get a hit the next one."
Such sentiment comes from Ortiz's reputation more than anything. He shows no signs of breaking his slump. He is not hitting the ball hard. In the first inning, he stranded Dustin Pedroia by swinging through a Garza fastball. And then he stranded Pedroia with a pop-up to short right field. And once more he stranded Pedroia by popping to center field.
In Ortiz's final at-bat, he went through all his machinations: spit on his hand, clap it twice, adjust his batting gloves and lord over the plate, 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds of pure intimidation, and swung through an 87-mph fastball from J.P. Howell before tapping a weak ground ball to first base.
However Ortiz's teammates try to make excuses for him – the Rays are pitching too well, or they're attacking him backward, with off-speed stuff preceding fastballs, or they're not giving him anything to hit, all theories posited – the fact remains: Ortiz should be immune to pretext.
The Rays have wrested control of this series. Even if Boston can rely on Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis for big hits, Ortiz still hits between them, and the third spot in the lineup necessitates he produce.
"Yes, he is a big name, a big asset, you'd love to see him crush the ball, put some home runs up there," said Red Sox pitcher Paul Byrd, who last season with Cleveland gave up Ortiz's most recent home run.
It came in Game 4 of the 2007 ALCS. In his previous 112 postseason at-bats, including that homer, Ortiz had jacked 11 and driven in 30 runs. The 54 at-bats since: zero homers and seven RBIs.
"You don't want to be the guy that wakes a sleeping dog," Garza said.
"You should never, ever, never, ever take him for granted," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Ever."
"We don't want to think about it," Rays first baseman Carlos Pena said. "We don't even want to go there. We know what he is capable of."
Is? Or was? Ortiz turns 33 in November. Sluggers with big bodies decline precipitously. Whether Ortiz is going through such a regression – his .507 slugging percentage was his lowest since joining Boston in 2003 – is a better question for next season, after his body recovers from the rigors of a long year.
Still, every day Francona pencils him in the No. 3 hole, and the Rays pitchers stare him down intending to fell the postseason giant of his time, Ortiz feels the onus to produce now. He can swagger around and drape his neck in gold like Mr. T and wear sunglasses inside because he is Big Papi. He can lob insult bombs at his opponent, as he did after Game 1 when he said the Rays played scared, without people calling him out for talking an awful lot of junk for someone who likewise looks fearful at the plate.
All of that is earned, privilege borne of production. The sort that allows Ortiz to hang a large picture of himself on a pole by his locker in Fenway. Next to the image is a sign that reads: Put Up or Shut Up.
Well, it's time. The dog needs to show he's still got some bite.
- the Rays