Thursday May 21st, 2009

BOSTON -- The ball left David Ortiz's bat and headed for deep center field on Wednesday night, carried by the warm night air and the assistance of 38,099 fans in the stands and another 30 in the Boston dugout. And it when it finally disappeared from view beyond the center-field fence, a roar went up in Fenway Park that was as much one of relief as joy. Ortiz had hit his first home run of the season, after 40 games, 149 at bats -- the longest drought of his career -- and untold prayers from the Fenway faithful that baseball's most surprising slump in recent memory would soon come to an end.

"I think we were all blowing on it, wanting it to go out," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said.

When Ortiz got back to the dugout, his teammates had just one thing to ask him. "They were all like, 'What took you so long?' " said Ortiz.

It's a question that all of baseball was asking as well, and Ortiz, the big lefty, was scrambling for answers. "I tried it all," he said. "I was about to hit right-handed." Until Wednesday night, Ortiz's slump was as big a story (non-PED division) in this young season as any other. Yet even after his best night of the season, the slump that caused an 18-page thread on the message board Sons of Sam Horn and got so bad that Ortiz's father, Enrique, came to Boston to encourage his son, may not be over. As his papi told Big Papi, "It's not going to get any worse than this."

That would seem to be true, but given the magnitude of Ortiz's slump, nothing can be certain. In truth, Ortiz's struggles began last season, first when he tore up his wrist at midseason, which contributed to his worst year ever as a Red Sox player: posting a .264/.369/.507 batting line that included just 23 home runs and 89 RBIs, and then hitting .186 with just one home run in the postseason.

Ortiz, 33, entered this season in better health, but the slump re-emerged in spring training and developed into the worst of his career. Ortiz struck out twice on Tuesday night and twice more on Wednesday, but for the first time all year he showed signs of being the fearsome Big Papi of old (who, from 2003-08, had the highest slugging percentage in the American League with the second-most home runs and RBIs, behind only Alex Rodriguez). Asked afterward what he had done differently to hit his first home run of the year, Ortiz flashed the trademark smile that, unlike his power stroke, has remained a constant presence this year, and said, "I swung like a man."

For one night at least, Big Papi was once again The Man. Gone was the feeble, frustrated slugger who bore little resemblance to the menace of years past. It is too soon to conclude that a slump of that depth is completely over, but Ortiz himself intimated that he may have unlocked the key to getting back to his old self. "I figured something out tonight," he said, although he wouldn't say what.

Decoding what is right about Ortiz now is, in many ways, as perplexing as figuring out what went wrong in the first place. His wrist injury undoubtedly played a role, as did the mounting frustration of, as hitting coach Dave Magadan put it, "Trying to hit two home runs in every at-bat." But physical ailments and mental pressure alone would not seem enough to cause Ortiz to struggle so mightily. His power drought was the longest in history to start a season by a player who had hit 50 home runs in a season, as Ortiz did in 2006. Among No. 3 hitters with at least 100 at-bats this season, Ortiz ranks last in on-base percentage, slugging and OPS, and next-to-last in home runs, RBIs, batting average, runs scored, total bases and strikeouts.

"He's really in trouble," one scout said. "He knows he's not going to catch up so he's cheating to the fastball and he's starting so early that he's getting locked in and can't adjust to the breaking ball. Is he ever going to be the force he was before? I don't think so."

Magadan says one of Ortiz's primary problems has been his "bat wrap." That is, he has started his swing with his bat pointed too much toward the pitcher's mound, causing a longer swing that has made him late getting to pitches. "When your swing is long you've got to start earlier," Magadan said. "When you start earlier you've got to make up your mind sooner about whether to swing and when you do that you swing at a lot of balls out of the strike zone. When you're able to wait and allow the ball to travel, your ball-strike recognition is better. Once he has trust in being short and direct to the ball, that's when he's going to recognize pitches a little better and that's when we're going to see him driving the ball."

Magadan has had Ortiz focus on spraying the ball all over the field during batting practice in an effort to get him to use the entire field. Ortiz, who hit just two home runs in BP on Tuesday night, does just that, and of his 29 hits this season only five have been pull hits. That may be an indication that Ortiz's bat is slowing down, but Magadan insists otherwise. "The bat speed is there," Magadan said. "We want him to hit the ball where it's pitched."

"He still has got issues inside," said the scout, who thinks teams will continue to pound Ortiz with fastballs inside until he proves he can drive them consistently. "The raw power is still there, but he's really mentally confused. He's behind on the fastball and ahead of the breaking ball right now."

According to, Ortiz has actually fared better against power pitchers (.250/.375/.375) and worse against finesse pitchers (.133/.235/.133) this year. Blue Jays reliever B.J. Ryan, who struck out Ortiz on Tuesday night before surrendering a double on Wednesday night, said the Blue Jays had not altered their scouting report against Ortiz from last season, and would continue to try to get him to chase breaking balls out of the zone. "Slumps are slumps," Ryan said. "He's still a great hitter."

For a time, Ortiz's struggles even seemed to be impacting the playful personality that had made him one of the game's most popular players. After going 0 for 7 and leaving a staggering 12 runners on base against the Angels last week, Ortiz politely declined to be interviewed after the game, saying, "Sorry, guys, I don't feel like talking right now. Just put down 'Papi stinks.' "

Francona sat Ortiz for all three games of the Red Sox's series in Seattle last weekend and resisted calls from fans and the media to drop Ortiz in the batting order, preferring instead to send the same message to his star that he had sent all season long: Ortiz was needed, and he would not be abandoned. "It's too easy to run from players, or run from problems," Francona said.

Ortiz's teammates similarly stuck by him. "Everyone in here is pulling for the guy," Rocco Baldelli said. "Everybody in here has been through this to some extent, but when I look at him, he's still David Ortiz. We'll wait for him."

Those teammates were waiting on Wednesday night when Ortiz rounded the bases amidst thunderous applause, crossed home plate and pointed to the sky not once but twice. He got to the dugout and, as Francona said, "We tried to give him the silent treatment, but it didn't last too long."

The dugout revelry didn't last long, either. There was a curtain call to be taken for the fans, one of whom had held up a sign reading, "Papi Needs a Hug." There was video to watch back in the clubhouse to try and discern just what had finally gone right. And there was, as always, more work to be done. "Sometimes that's all it takes, to get a good hit and then everything starts clicking," he said. "I feel like I finally got that ol' monkey off my back."

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