Hector Noesi had never faced David Ortiz before. He was in his second inning of work, mopping up for starter Freddy Garcia, who got whacked harder than a piñata at a second grader’s birthday party. Noesi had walked Adrian Gonzalez to start the inning before inducing a Kevin Youkilis fly-out in the next at bat.
With the count one and one to Ortiz, Noesi delivered a 94 mile-an-hour fastball right down the heart of the plate: Big Papi’s happy place. Soon that baseball traveled from happy place to the right-field bleachers as Ortiz bopped his 14th home run of the season. Papi didn’t have to watch the ball to know where it ended up … so he didn’t.
The great Kanye West once said, “Mr. West in the building, swagger on a hundred thousand trillion.” Right now, I think David Ortiz’s swagger is at about two hundred thousand trillion.
Ortiz has been launching balls into the solar system all season. Right now, the man some call “the greatest clutch hitter in the history of the Boston Red Sox,” is on pace for 38 homers in 2011. The last time he hit that many was back in 2006, when he obliterated American League pitching for a career-best 54 round-trippers. People didn’t even know who flip-flop-wearing Mark Zuckerberg was back then.
The most astonishing part of Papi’s resurgence isn’t the 14 homers, good for 5th best in the league: it’s his batting average. Ortiz is hitting .324 at the moment. The only time he’s ever had a higher average was when he hit .332 in 2007.
Two years earlier, it looked like Ortiz’s baseball career was disintegrating faster than MC Hammer’s bank account. The slugger hit just .238 in ‘09 while registering 28 homers, a far cry from his early years with the Sox when he averaged over 40 homers a season. Last year’s .270 and 32 dingers was an improvement but it still didn’t look like Ortiz could ever hit .300 again.
After he batted .143 in the opening month last year, Ortiz bumped that up to a respectable .267 this April. May was even better for Papi, who finished the month at .342 with 10 homers. In June he’s just been filthy, hitting .474 and notching his first player of the week award since August 2007.
He’s seeing the ball better. He’s using the opposite field. His bat speed is back. He’s not striking out as often as he used to. He’s still as slow as a sloth, but who needs to run fast when you’re blasting home runs all the time (just ask Bryce Harper)?
But best of all, you can tell Big Papi’s having fun again. And it’s easy to see why. His mind is as clear as it’s been in years.
Papi was hampered by a wrist injury and was right in the middle of Manny Ramirez’s dramatic divorce from the Red Sox in 2008. The next season, he had to answer to steroid allegations after the New York Times released a report that he had tested positive for PEDs back in 2003.
Last April it looked like he forgot how to hit altogether. You could have struck Papi out with a beach ball, that’s how lost he was out there. All of the confidence that propelled Ortiz to five straight All-Star appearances between 2004 and 2008 had evaporated. Furious talk radio callers wanted to give Terry Francona the guillotine for continuing to play Ortiz. At that time, it looked like there was a better chance Charlie Sheen would be DHing for the Red Sox in 2011 than David Ortiz.
Now all of that pressure is gone. Ortiz isn’t the three or four hitter anymore. He’s batted fifth in the order almost all season. Going into the season, fans expected Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford to be Boston’s stars, not Ortiz. Whatever the 35-year-old could provide out of the five-hole would be an added bonus for the Red Sox. Most fantasy experts projected him to be in the .250, 20-25 homer range.
With Gonzalez and others shouldering the load instead of Papi, Ortiz has found his stroke again. Papi’s amazing comeback season is a major reason why Boston sits in a tie for first in the AL East, even after a sluggish 2-10 start.
With Crawford heating up and Gonzalez having perhaps the best statistical year of his career (his .340 average is tied for second-best in the majors), suddenly there is no easy out in the Red Sox lineup. Jacoby Ellsbury’s been as good a leadoff man as there is in the American League. Dustin Pedroia, Crawford, and Kevin Youkilis are always threats and even if Jarrod Saltalamacchia can’t hit .250, he still has 15 home-run potential. Gonzalez and Papi have been two of the toughest outs in baseball this year and both of them should be headed to Phoenix for the All-Star Game next month.
It looks like Ortiz is back and so are the Red Sox, who have now won 17 out of their last 23 games. Think Hector Noesi will be daring enough to throw Papi a middle-of-the-plate fastball again this season? I doubt it. And if he does, I’d tell the ump to get an extra baseball ready.