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After horrible start Ortiz has found swing, new life in Red Sox lineup


I hate writing about David Ortiz. Every time I say he's done, Ortiz goes on a tear. When I admit I'm wrong, he goes into a tailspin and I wonder if I was right in the first place.

I was certainly wrong about Ortiz in this space on April 12, when I wrote a column headlined, "Boston's big problem: Big Papi past his prime, no longer everyday DH.''

It seemed to be true at the time, but of course that was before Ortiz wound up being American League Player of the Month in May, when he hit .363 with 10 homers and 27 RBIs.

Just when I admitted how stupid I am, Ortiz started off June with a 3 for 33 slump. He looked like he was toast again. But he came out of it, batting .480 with seven extra base hits and 10 RBIs in a seven-game stretch. At the moment, he's batting .260 with 15 homers and 46 RBIs in 52 games. He may not be Miguel Cabrera this year, but he's not Mario Mendoza either.

Big Papi was well under the Mendoza Line in April, when most of us gave up on him. He batted .111 (2 for 18) with no homers, one RBI and nine strikeouts in Boston's first five games. He finished April hitting .143 and claimed people were treating him like he was 80 years old even though his "official" age is 34. He reminded us that the baseball season doesn't end in April. It ends in October.

There was pressure on Sox manager Terry Francona to move Ortiz down in the lineup, sit him against lefties, or pinch hit for him against lefties in late-game situations. Francona is more loyal to his veterans than any other manager in the big leagues. If Mike Timlin were to stop by Coors Field when the Sox play the Rockies tomorrow night, Francona, no doubt, would be tempted to let Timlin pitch the eighth inning. Earl Weaver once said of Mike Cuellar, "I gave Cuellar more chances than my first wife.'' This pretty much sums up Francona's devotion to Ortiz.

It hasn't always been easy. By any measurement, there's been marked decline in Ortiz' numbers since the end of the 2007 season. From 2003 to '07, Ortiz's slugging percentage was .612. In the last two and a half seasons, he's slugging lower than .500. He doesn't hit as many homers, he doesn't get on base as much and he strikes out a ton.

He hit .186 in the 2008 postseason and went 1 for 12 with no RBIs in the playoffs last year. In April and May of 2009 he went 149 at bats without a homer. He had one home run on June 1. We all said he was finished.

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But at the end of the year he had 28 homers and 99 RBIs.

There was little rope this April. And Francona finally caved. The manager moved Ortiz down to sixth in the lineup. Then he benched him in favor of Mike Lowell against some lefties. When Francona sent a righthanded hitter up to bat for Ortiz in the late innings of a game in April, Ortiz for a moment looked like he was going to defy his manager.

It was reported that Ortiz left the ballpark early that night. Ortiz said the report was a lie. He also said he thought Red Sox management was trying to make him look bad by emphasizing his negative numbers on the team's in-house television station (NESN).

It's difficult to believe the latter charge. John Henry has praised and protected Ortiz. He gave Ortiz a trophy anointing him as the greatest clutch hitter in Red Sox history (Carl Yastrzemski fans might argue) and backed Ortiz like a favorite son when it was leaked that Ortiz was one of 104 big leaguers who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003 (the year Ortiz turned his career around).

"David said he didn't do it,'' explained Henry.

Ortiz is in the final year of a contract that has paid him $52 million over the last four seasons. It was widely assumed earlier this season the Sox would look for a new DH in 2011. Some dopes like me thought they might release Ortiz this year. Now everything has changed. Ortiz is again one of the most feared designated hitters in the American League. He's hitting in the No. 3 spot for one of the best offenses in baseball and his slugging percentage in May was .788 -- best in Major League Baseball.

He's a completely different player. Gone is the washed up slugger who could not handle the inside fastball. Suddenly, Ortiz is turning on 94 mph heaters from the likes of Matt Garza and Dan Haren.

"He looks like the old David, he really does,'' said Francona. "He's taking some ferocious swings. The ball's coming off his off his bat. You can tell he feels good about himself.''

Simply amazing.