from NY TimesJune 29, 2004Red Sox' Ortiz Looks as Good as AdvertisedBy BILL FINLEY
OSTON, June 27 - David Ortiz's toothy, broad smile dominates the imposing billboard just outside the main gates of Fenway Park, imploring Red Sox fans to hang in there. "Keep the Faith," says the billboard, perhaps suggesting that with a player like Ortiz, anything is possible, even in a city that has not won a World Series since 1918.
In this instance, no one can accuse the Red Sox of false advertising. Ortiz blossomed when he joined the Red Sox last season as a free agent, puncturing the Yankees in head-to-head games and posting overall numbers - .288 batting average, 31 home runs and 101 runs batted in - that led to a fifth-place finish in the American League's most valuable player voting.
Nothing much has changed this season. Ortiz, 28, has become one of the most feared run producers in baseball and is one of the primary reasons the Red Sox have not slipped hopelessly behind the Yankees in the A.L. East. He enters tonight's three-game series at Yankee Stadium with 19 home runs, 72 R.B.I. and a .304 average. Only one player - third baseman Scott Rolen of St. Louis - has more R.B.I. than Ortiz.
"He is locked in," the Red Sox' hitting coach, Ron Jackson, said of Ortiz. "Once you get in that groove, that zone, nobody can get you out. That's what Ortiz is doing right now. He's taking some good at-bats and not swinging at bad pitches. He's waiting and getting his pitches. Then he gets ahead in the count and makes them pay."
The expectations were relatively modest when Ortiz, who spent parts of six seasons with Minnesota, arrived in Boston. He had never driven in more than 75 runs in the majors or had more than 20 home runs in a season or played in more than 130 games. He began the 2003 season sharing time with Jeremy Giambi, and he appeared in only 31 of Boston's first 54 games. Then he forced his way into the everyday lineup.
"I could have put up those kind of numbers before," Ortiz said of his emergence last year.
His 2003 statistics were remarkable, considering that he appeared in only 128 games and had only four home runs through June. Over his last 162 regular-season games, Ortiz has 47 homers and 146 R.B.I.
When the Red Sox signed the veteran right-handed hitter Ellis Burks in the off-season, it appeared that Ortiz, who splits time between first base and designated hitter, might be relegated to the bench against some left-handers. But Burks went on the disabled list April 26 and has not returned. Meanwhile, Ortiz has played in all but one of Boston's 74 games.
"I got a chance to watch David last year from afar, and the numbers he put up in a short amount of time were pretty remarkable," Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling said. "But on a daily basis, he's a much better hitter than I thought he was. From a pitcher's standpoint, the thing I've noticed is that he's cut down on his strikeouts over the last three, four weeks. As long as he puts the ball in play, good things will happen."
Ortiz has spent most of the season batting in third in the order, ahead of Manny Ramirez. That has clearly helped him, because few pitchers want to pitch around him with Ramirez up next. This season, Ramirez and Ortiz have combined for 39 home runs and 131 R.B.I.
"The big thing for him is that he has Manny Ramirez hitting right behind him," Jackson said. "One guy feeds off the other guy."
Ramirez and Ortiz sometimes seem to be all that stands between the Red Sox and mediocrity in a year in which they have struggled to live up to the expectations brought about by the acquisitions of Schilling and closer Keith Foulke. The Red Sox cannot afford to fall further behind the Yankees in this series and will probably need Ortiz to deliver.
That is what he did last season, when he hit .327 against the Yankees, with 6 home runs and 14 R.B.I. He ripped a two-run double off José Contreras to key a five-run inning that led to a 10-7 Red Sox victory on May 20 at Fenway Park. On July 26, he hit a pinch-hit double against Armando Benitez off the Green Monster to give the Red Sox a 5-4 victory. One night later, he tripled off Jesse Orosco to key a six-run rally that led to a 6-4 come-from-behind victory. In that fateful Game 7 of the A.L. Championship Series against the Yankees, Ortiz's eighth-inning home run off David Wells added to Boston's lead - a 5-2 advantage that the Red Sox were not able to hold.
"I just try to play against them the way I play against everybody," Ortiz said of the Yankees. "The one thing is that they challenge you more than most teams. They challenge everybody. The guys who face you out of the bullpen are not going to try to walk you. They're going to bring somebody in out of the bullpen who is going to try to do the job."
The only Yankees pitcher who has consistently gotten the best of Ortiz is Mike Mussina. Ortiz is 1 for 23 in his career off Mussina, who is not scheduled to pitch in this series.
Ortiz's bat has been somewhat quieter this season against the Yankees, who last played the Red Sox on April 25. In seven games, six of them won by the Red Sox, he is 8 for 30 with no home runs and three R.B.I. But he has heated up considerably since the last time these teams met, driving in 55 runs since May 1 over 52 games.
He is ready for the Bronx; the Yankees will try to be ready for him.