Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Papi & Red Sox on a Roll
Batting just .170 with no home runs and 4 RBIs on the season, Ortiz was a mess. But Francona saw something, and said before the game, "I actually think it will be good for him" to face 6-foot-9-inch Baltimore lefthander Mark Hendrickson. " 'Cause it will force him to really stay on the ball. You hear lefties say it all the time: If you cheat a little bit, you don't just make an out, but they can embarrass you."
There was no embarrassment. There were no timid ground outs to the right side. Sure, there was one strikeout swinging on an 86-mile-per-hour fastball, but Ortiz also bashed a Wall double and a triple, driving in two runs, as the Red Sox thumped the Orioles, 12-1, with marathoners racing by. That made the Red Sox proud owners of a four-game series sweep and pushed themselves a notch ahead of the sorry O's.
While many in a crowd of 37,865 were downing beer at an early hour - that 11 a.m. start - Ortiz was attempting to prove to himself and to his semi-faithful that he was not done. Not at 33 years old, after his swing looked particularly slow against the fastballs of Koji Uehara Sunday.
"If you as a hitter slow down with 88 miles an hour [fastballs], that means you've got to go," Ortiz said. "But it's crazy how you can come after you get beat by 88, and come and hit 94. That means that it's not that you've got to go, it means that you've got to pull yourself together to keep working. This is a long season.
"I was late. It doesn't matter how hard the pitch was thrown. If you're late, you're late."
But while Ortiz proved that he can have an Ortiz game, he has not yet proven who he is now. It could be this way all year - beacons of hope in an otherwise steady downturn. Or he could start rolling, the bat speed picking up as the weather turns warmer. He said he "hasn't felt like this in years" physically.
"I've been working with my mechanics, man," Ortiz said. "I've been late, a little late with pitches, which is something that I normally don't do, and pitchers are taking advantage of it.
"It's got a little bit out of hand. But at this point you don't want to get frustrated. It just makes it worse. You want to make sure you get to the point where you like to be and where you need to be. It's the beginning of the season and you don't want to give up.
"I would like to swing like [Dustin] Pedroia - you don't have to worry about mechanics."
Pedroia, too, continued to break out of whatever funk he was in. And Jacoby Ellsbury. And Jason Varitek. All together, the Sox threw out 15 hits against a sad-sack Orioles pitching staff that must be glad to head back to Camden Yards. Fenway was not hospitable, the Orioles' fifth consecutive loss matching the fifth consecutive win for the Sox.
It was good, all the runs and the hits and a holiday crowd looking for amusement. But even as Justin Masterson was putting Daisuke Matsuzaka's shoulder injury out of the minds of the revelers, there were more injury concerns to contemplate. Rocco Baldelli left the game after the third inning with a mild left hamstring strain. Word came after the game that Jed Lowrie could be in for surgery in the next day or two, likely costing him half of a season.
Masterson's only blemish on his 5 1/3 innings and 84 pitches came in the third inning. Ryan Freel led off with a single, then went to second on a sacrifice bunt by Felix Pie. After the pitcher knocked Freel out of the game with a pickoff attempt that hit him in the head, pinch runner Robert Andino scored on a two-out infield single by Cesar Izturis.
Six days after he saved the bullpen with four innings, Masterson showed off his fastball, getting up to 96 miles per hour, a velocity he had reached as a reliever but not as a starter.
"It's probably not fair to expect that," Francona said of Masterson's flexibility. "He was sharp from the very beginning. He maintained the velocity on his fastball, the life on his fastball, the depth on his breaking ball. Eleven o'clock in the morning start, there are a lot of things that he just went out and did. We're fortunate, we know that."
Fortunate, also, that the offense appears to be leaving those Mendoza Line batting averages behind.
The Sox got all they needed in the first inning, with a double by Ellsbury and a single by Pedroia, followed by that opposite-field double by Ortiz. Another run came in the second, when Varitek hit his third home run of the season, his first righthanded, as his batting average sits at an acceptable .250. (He declined, once again, to discuss his offense, as he has since spring training.)
Then came three runs in the sixth inning, highlighted by Ortiz's two-run triple. And 12 batters came to the plate in the seventh, when the Sox scored six more runs to truly put the game away.
That's the offense they have had in the past, jumping on bad pitching. Whether they - and Ortiz - can do the same against a higher caliber of pitching remains to be seen. The bat belonging to the designated hitter might be speeding up. Or it might be continuing a precipitous decline.
"He swung the bat good today," Pedroia said. "He's got to build on that and keep moving forward. It's a long year. He's got 600 more at-bats left. The season's not 50 at-bats."