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Boston's big problem: Big Papi past his prime, no longer everyday DH

The first week of the baseball season wasn't much fun for David Ortiz.

Big Papi, Mr. Walkoff, struggled mightily out of the blocks and a portion of Red Sox Nation is ready to give up on Ortiz as the club's everyday DH.

Ortiz went hitless in the Sox first two games against the Yankees, then took issue with a postgame question about his slow start, peppering his short answer with seven expletives. This only heaped more pressure on his enormous head, but he finally silenced some of the critics with an RBI single off Andy Pettitte in the series finale.

He was happy to get out of town for a weekend in sleepy Kansas City, but things only got worse at Kauffman Stadium. Last Friday night Ortiz was ejected by home plate umpire Mike Estabrook after getting called out for failing to hold back on a feeble check swing/strike three. He got the day off Saturday, but returned to the lineup Sunday and struck out four times, leaving five runners on base.

The Red Sox are in Minnesota this week and return to Fenway Friday night. Ortiz begins the week batting .111 (2 for 18) with no homers and one RBI. He has struck out nine times in five games.

It's an awkward situation for Ortiz and his manager, the ever-loyal Terry Francona.

For starters, let's dismiss the notion that it's unfair to question Ortiz' place in the lineup after only one week. This is not a five-game sample, folks. It's a three-year trend.

Ortiz earned his reputation as the greatest clutch hitter in Sox history, carrying the Boston offense (along with Manny Ramirez) to a pair of World Series championships. He set the franchise record with 54 homers in 2006.

In 2004, '05 and '06 he knocked in 139, 148 and 137 runs respectively.

But he's been trending downward in dramatic fashion, starting with the 2008 playoffs in which he hit .186 in 10 games against the Angels and Rays. Then came his abysmal start in 2009. Ortiz did not hit a home run last spring until May 20, a stretch of 149 at-bats. He finished the season with 28 homers and 99 RBIs, but he hit only .238 and his slugging and on-base percentages were way down. He hit only .125 on fastballs up in the strike zone, .212 vs. lefties. Then he went 1-12 with no RBIs in the playoff sweep against the Angels. The day after the Sox were eliminated, GM Theo Epstein said the Sox would need to get more production from the DH spot in 2010.

Which brings us to now. Ortiz showed up at spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., significantly smaller and told us he had nothing to prove. He reminded us that he's traditionally a slow starter.

So why the fuss over a bad first week?

Because Ortiz will never again be the slugger he once was. Good pitchers toy with him. Lefties dominate him. The Joe Maddon shift has tortured him. He misses Manny. He is at least 34 years old and hitters with his body type generally fade quickly in the mid 30s (Ortiz is untradeable, a 10-5 player, making $12 million in the final year of his contract).

There's also speculation that he used performance-enhancing drugs. Last summer The New York Times revealed that Ortiz was among one of the 104 major leaguers who tested positive when all players submitted to drug testing in 2003. The Major League Players Association rushed to Ortiz' defense and childish Sox owner John Henry stated, "David said he didn't do it,'' but the damage was done.

The 2003 season was the one in which Ortiz went from ordinary to spectacular after being dumped by the Twins. Ortiz will always be one of the most popular players ever to wear a Red Sox uniform. He's been Mr. Clutch, the Dominican Yaz. Since coming to Boston he's also been thoroughly professional and friendly, bringing nothing but joy to Sox fans and teammates. But the Sox can't wait two months for him to get untracked this year. Boston lost Jason Bay (36 homers, 119 RBIs) to the Mets and their offense could be an issue for a team that spent the winter acquiring only pitching and defense.

This creates a nightmare for Francona, who loves those veterans of '04 and '07. Tito stayed with Mike Timlin and Jason Varitek long after they stopped contributing and it's not going to be easy to tell Ortiz to sit.

"I don't want David looking over his shoulder a game and a half into the season,'' the manager said after Ortiz's outburst with the media during the Yankee series. "I want him to walk up there and feel comfortable ... He's done a lot of good things here and I think he thinks some people bailed on him last year. Being reactionary isn't my job.''

It's time to react. Mike Lowell and Jeremy Hermida are on the Boston bench, waiting for a chance to hit.

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