Big Papi poised for another breakout

Gordon Edes

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Fans have grown tired, David Ortiz said Thursday, of seeing the New York Yankees every October, which was why it was refreshing to see the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALCS.

"People get tired of seeing the same team over and over," Ortiz said, then added, "Hopefully, they don't get tired of seeing us."

The Boston Red Sox have become a staple of the fall TV schedule, having advanced to the postseason five of the last six seasons and winning the World Series twice. All that face time – and Ortiz's flair for the dramatic – transformed Big Papi into one of baseball's most recognizable handles.

So far this fall, however, Ortiz's name barely has appeared in the closing credits. Against the Angels in the AL Division Series, he was limited to a .235 average (4 for 17) with no home runs and a single RBI.

"In a short series," he said, "everybody knows what you can do. I guess sometimes teams like to test somebody else. 'OK, this guy does a lot of damage against me; let's try somebody else.' If I'm the manager, I'd be doing the same thing."

Since the start of the 2004 season, when the Red Sox won their first World Series, until this October, Ortiz batted .381 for Boston in the postseason, with nine home runs and 30 RBIs. He drove in 19 runs in 2004, tying a postseason record, and had three walk-off hits, most ever for a player in a single postseason. Two of those walk-off hits were home runs, off Jarrod Washburn of the Angels to end the ALDS, and a 12th-inning home run off Paul Quantrill of the Yankees to end Game 4 of the ALCS.

Last season, Ortiz batted .370 with three home runs, 10 RBIs and 14 walks. He hit safely in the team's first nine games and batted .714 (5 for 7, two home runs) in the three-game sweep of the Angels in the Division Series.

The constant in all of those series: Manny Ramirez was hitting behind Ortiz. Batting cleanup for the Sox against the Angels this go-round was Kevin Youkilis, who hit .222 (4 for 18) with no home runs and an RBI.

Ortiz said the Angels elected not to pitch to him, taking their chances with Youkilis. The Angels were helped, Ortiz said, by holding Dustin Pedroia, the man batting in front of him, to one hit in 17 at-bats.

Ortiz expects the Rays to take a similar approach.

"At some point," he said, "you're going to have (Jacoby) Ellsbury and Pedroia getting hot. What are they going to do then, walk me, too, or throw those breaking balls in the dirt?"

One major league advance scout who worked the Angels-Red Sox series said it wasn't just a matter of the Angels pitching around Ortiz.

"They threw him a number of hard, down-and-in back-foot sliders," the scout said. "They basically tried to tie him up. They challenged him a couple of times, and he fouled those pitches off. They pitched carefully to him, but he had a couple of pitches to hit, in my opinion."

Ortiz acknowledged that he might have been overanxious when he did get a pitch to hit.

"It happens to everybody," he said. "Sometimes in a close game, you want to do some damage. You may see one pitch, and if you don't hit it, you won't see another one."

This has not been an easy summer for Ortiz. He missed time in April and May with lingering soreness from offseason surgery on his right knee, then tore a tendon sheath in his left wrist while fouling a ball off in Baltimore. He elected to forgo surgery but missed a total of 45 games.

Ortiz, who hit 35 home runs and 52 doubles while batting a career-best .332 in 2007, finished this season with 23 home runs and 30 doubles while hitting .264, his lowest average since he batted .234 in a half-season for the Twins in 2001, when he underwent surgery on his right wrist.. He hit just .236 on the road. He had 10 home runs in the season's second half and batted just .244 in September.

The wrist bothered him periodically during the season, he said. The discomfort was not unexpected. Now, however, he insists he is healthy, for the time being.

"I'm fine." He said. "My hand feels way better. It's not a problem right now."

The scout said he saw no indication that the wrist was a factor against the Angels.

"I think he was just out of sync," he said. "I never saw him where there was a swing and a miss and he'd pull off and shake his wrist like it was hurting."

Last month against the Rays, Ortiz hit two tape-measure home runs. He hit a ball onto a Tropicana Field catwalk that never came down. He also felt good enough to take over the DJ's booth when the Red Sox celebrated their series win over the Angels at Game On, the night spot built into Fenway Park.

"You were really good," Sox backup catcher Kevin Cash told him Thursday afternoon. "I just couldn't understand half of what you were saying."

This is what Ortiz was saying Thursday about the Rays: They were not a team to be taken lightly.

"Right now it's even money," he said. "It's not only (about) who has the experience but who plays the best, and these guys have been kicking (expletive). You can't take anything for granted about the Rays. They've been playing good. You got to give them credit."

But there will be a point in this series, he said, that they will have to pitch to Papi. He lowered his voice for dramatic effect.

"I'll be waiting," he said.

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