Red Sox dilemma: Ortiz or Napoli? To start, it's Big Papi
BOSTON -- On Thursday night, David Ortiz added to his extensive and growing catalog of October home runs by taking Cardinals rookie Michael Wacha over the Green Monster for a two-run homer that gave the Red Sox a 2-1 lead.
Though St. Louis would rally for a 4-2 win that tied the World Series at one-game apiece, Ortiz's latest blast should not be overlooked. He has now slugged 13 of his 17 postseason homers when the margin was within two runs, a total that doesn't include his ALCS Game 2 grand slam, which erased a four-run deficit with one swing.
Asked about his methodology for well-timed postseason heroics, Ortiz said, "I'll let you know after the World Series is over. I'm not going to give you all my secrets now."
As confident as Ortiz might be in the batter's box, his play in the field is a different story.
"I'm down to do whatever my manager wants me to do," Ortiz said. Then he added, with a smile, "Just go out there and wish me good luck."
Ortiz will need that luck because when the World Series migrates to St. Louis for Games 3, 4 and 5 starting Saturday, he will also need a glove. Now that National League rules banning the designated hitter will be in effect, Ortiz's defense could prove as costly as his offense has been beneficial.
Ortiz has been taking groundballs at first base all week to prepare, and after Game 2 Boston manager John Farrell said it was "likely" Ortiz would start at first in Game 3, adding he would go "day to day" before deciding on Games 4 and 5.
Not only is Ortiz a poor defender who rarely plays the field -- he hasn't played more than 10 games at first base in any season since 2004 -- putting him there would necessitate removing Mike Napoli from the starting lineup. Napoli, Boston's regular starting first baseman, is one of the few other Red Sox hitters who is producing right now -- he has a 1.029 OPS and .304 average in his past six games -- and he's also made himself into an above-average defender at first.
Ortiz started six of the Red Sox' 10 interleague road games this season at first base, and the most likely scenario is that a similar ratio is maintained during the games in St. Louis, with Ortiz starting two and Napoli one. It is possible that Ortiz starts all three as each game will be against a righthanded starter and because Farrell will probably be aggressive in using Napoli to replace Ortiz in the field if Boston has a lead. If Napoli plays a couple innings and gets multiple at bats, that would somewhat mitigate any concern of him cooling off if he doesn't start for five days.
Even losing a few at bats from this pair is a particularly perilous proposition for the Red Sox right now. In a postseason bereft of runs, even from the majors' top-scoring offense, Boston has relied on big hits from Ortiz and Napoli. They share the team lead of six extra-base hits this month: four doubles and two homers for Napoli, one double and five homers for Ortiz. Add in Dustin Pedroia's suddenly hot bat -- a .310 average and .412 OBP in the eight games of the ALCS and World Series -- and the 3-4-5 hitters of the Sox lineup are performing well right now.
"Probably each guy has the ability to carry us," Farrell said of a lineup that got above-average OPS production in the regular season from eight of its nine batting order positions. But, he added, "We still have other guys we need to get going."
That became even more evident in Game 2, when the 6-through-9 hitters went 0-for-14 with seven strikeouts and one walk. Nearly every Boston hitter had a bad month somewhere along the way this season but as Gomes said last month, "We've done a really good job of passing the torch and hiding the slumps."
It's a lot easier to hide slumps, however, when every other guy is hitting from 1-through-9. It's much harder to do so when those slumps are occurring in consecutive lineup slots, and right now the Red Sox have a clear top/bottom divide.
In addition to the aforementioned production of Pedroia, Ortiz and Napoli, leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury leads the team with 17 hits and a .362 average in the playoffs. In all, hitters in the 1-through-5 lineup spots are batting .263 with a .788 OPS and eight home runs this postseason. The 6-through-9 hitters have produced a .181 average with a .516 OPS and no home runs. Gomes is 1 for 15 in his last four starts. Jarrod Saltalamacchia is batting .207 with nearly three times as many strikeouts (17) as hits (6). Xander Bogaerts is 0-for-6 with a sacrifice fly in the World Series. Stephen Drew is 2 for his last 33 with 13 strikeouts.
Don't expect Napoli, a former catcher, to move back behind the plate in place of Saltalamacchia while Ortiz plays first, either. He hasn't played there all season, not since he was diagnosed with a hip condition in the offseason. Farrell indicated that having Napoli catch was not an option. "One or the other is going to sit, unfortunately," Farrell said.
"We're going to have to deal with it," Napoli told reporters. "Whoever's not playing that day is going to be prepared to come in late in the game and try to make something happen."
At least Farrell won't have to be meticulous in setting up a particular matchup when summoning whoever doesn't start into a pinch-hitting role. Both players have gotten big hits this postseason against same-side power pitchers: Ortiz homered off lefty reliever Kevin Siegrist in World Series Game 1, while Napoli went deep off Tigers righthanders Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez in the ALCS.
"This is what you get prepared for all year round," Ortiz said. "I don't play for July. I play for this, right now."