The "teaser" headline on the front page of Thursday's Boston Globe was simple and to the point: Ortiz clouts No. 400 as Sox drop another.
In a way, it was a perfect summary of the entire first half of the Red Sox season.
After 82 games, just past the official midpoint of the campaign, the Red Sox are a lackluster 42-40 entering this weekend's big series against the first-place Yankees. Injuries and underachievement have rattled the team, but there has been one star performer who has excelled all year—David Ortiz.
Boston's lone All-Star selectee has been incredibly consistent in reaching mid-year totals of 22 homers, 55 RBI and a .302 batting average. Big Papi had six homers and 20 RBI in April, six and 15 in May, and nine and 18 in June. His average has never fallen below .300.
Across the board, Ortiz has been among baseball's best in his 10th year with the Red Sox. His .607 slugging average and .997 OPS rank him second to only Josh Hamilton in the American League, and he trails only Ian Kinsler with 60 runs scored. His 24 doubles tie him with teammate Adrian Gonzalez for fifth in that department. His 46 extra-base hits lead the AL.
Although Boston ended its awful West Coast road trip with a 3-2 loss at Oakland on July 4, Ortiz reached a milestone: the 400th homer of his career. He has hit 342 of them for the Red Sox, placing him fifth all-time in franchise history. At his current pace, he could pass Dwight Evans (379 with Boston) and Jim Rice (382) on that list by early next year; leaders Ted Williams (521) and Carl Yastrzemski (452) seem safe for now, but with Big Papi you never know.
Even after a fine 2011 season by Ortiz (.309, 29, 96), this resurgence has surprised many. Big Papi hit just one home run during last September's epic meltdown by Boston, and at age 36 entering this spring, he was well into the period when many big-bodied sluggers start to slip.
But Ortiz, frustrated by the team's unwillingness to give him a two-year contract last season, came to spring training roughly 25 pounds lighter and ready to prove his worth. His quickened bat speed was apparent from the start, and he hit a resounding .405 in April.
He couldn't keep that up, of course, but he has continued to bash the ball with more authority (and more often) than in years. Ortiz's 45 strikeouts have him on pace to finish well below the 100 mark that he's topped six times. One of baseball's greatest designated hitters even flashed some impressive leather in interleague play, handling 56 chances flawlessly in seven games at first base against NL competition (with a few "Web-Gem" worthy plays).
His offensive numbers would be even more gaudy if Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez were having their typical .300-plus seasons around him in the order. One or both of this pair always seemed to be on base when Papi—usually batting fifth—came up last year. Both have slumped severely at different points this season, however, and Pedroia is now going back on the disabled list.
Pitchers have taken advantage by handling Ortiz more carefully, and he leads the AL with 10 intentional walks. Unexpected pop from catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia (16 homers), who often bats after Papi, has helped keep that total from going even higher.
Now, with Gonzalez starting to hit and 2011 MVP runner-up Jacoby Ellsbury slated to rejoin the team later in July, Ortiz could find himself with a lot more RBI opportunities in the second half. His trimmed-down figure should be helpful in the dog days of August, and with Boston expected to be in a dogfight for a playoff spot, Big Papi's ability to rise to the occasion in the clutch will be key. He has certainly done it before.
If Ortiz does maintain this pace, his final numbers will be his best since 2007—when he last led the Red Sox to a World Series title. That seems a very tall task for this year's club, but Big Papi figures to have a big say in Boston's chances.
Saul Wisnia lives less than seven miles from Fenway Park and works 300 yards from Yawkey Way. His latest book, Fenway Park: The Centennial, is available at amazon.com and his Red Sox reflections can be found at http://saulwisnia.blogspot.com/. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @saulwizz.