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Posted: Tuesday October 14, 2008 11:36AM; Updated: Tuesday October 14, 2008 1:01PM
John Donovan John Donovan >
INSIDE BASEBALL

Big Papi's big struggles

Story Highlights

Boston Red Sox DH David Ortiz is in a major October slump

A wrist injury suffered at mid-season may still be bothering him

Ortiz was a catalyst on Boston's World Series-winning teams of 2004 and '07

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David Ortiz
David Ortiz is 4-for-27 with one RBI and seven strikeouts this October.
AP
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BOSTON -- David Ortiz strides to the plate with the same menacing mien. He still lubes his batting gloves in the same way, a well-placed loogie ground into the leather of his palms like he's crushing the pitcher's spleen to dust. He digs into the batter's box in the same, purposeful way, wags his big bat slowly, just as he's done for years.

And that's where the similarities between the old Ortiz and this new one end. There's something different about Ortiz in these playoffs, something terribly wrong, and if he doesn't figure out what that is, and fix it soon, the Red Sox's season won't last much longer.

Is it his wrist? Does he miss Manny Ramirez? What's up with Boston's heretofore dangerous designated hitter? After going 0-for-4 on Monday night in Boston's 9-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, Ortiz is hitless in 10 at-bats in the ALCS, which the Sox now trail, 2-1. He is only 4-for-27 (.148) in the postseason.

Ortiz has gone 54 postseason at-bats without a home run, dating to Game 4 of the ALCS last year and 67 plate appearances overall. Is it any wonder the Sox are reeling right now? "I'm pretty reluctant to put it on one guy," teammate Jason Bay said. "He's one of the best postseason hitters there is."

What's wrong with Big Papi? Answers are hard to come by -- Ortiz declined to talk Monday night -- but theories aren't.

1. His wrist is still bugging him

Ortiz tore a sheath around a tendon in his left wrist on May 31 in Baltimore. He missed all of June and most of July while the injury healed and clearly was affected by the sore wrist at times in the last couple of months. Still, in 55 regular-season games after he returned, Ortiz hit .277 with a .385 OBP and a .529 slugging percentage. Those numbers are a little off his career averages, but not much. Before the ALCS began, Ortiz told MLB.com, "I feel good, man. The wrist is great."

It's possible that the wear-and-tear of two months has re-injured the wrist, or it's just not as strong as it once was. But Ortiz insists he feels fine and the team has given no indication he's playing hurt. In fact, everyone seems to think it's just a matter of time until the old Ortiz re-emerges. "I've been around David long enough to know that it can change with one swing of the bat," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said.

2. He misses Manny

For years, Ramirez hit cleanup behind Ortiz, theoretically enabling Big Papi to swing on a steady stream of fastballs as pitchers went after him to avoid pitching to Manny. Now, theoretically, with Ramirez missing from the lineup after a July trade to the Dodgers, Ortiz is simply not the same player.

The truth is, in the 60 games before Ramirez was dealt, Ortiz had a .266 batting average, a .360 OBP and a .498 slugging percentage. In 49 games after, he hit .262 with a .381 OBP and a .519 slugging percentage. You could argue, then, that Ortiz has been a better hitter since Manny left town. Even with the bad wrist.

And it's not as if no one's hitting behind Ortiz in the lineup now. Since taking over for Ramirez as Boston's cleanup hitter, Kevin Youkilis has hit .319 with a .415 on-base percentage and a .626 slugging percentage. An unhappy Ramirez, before the trade, had these corresponding numbers: .299/.398/.529. Youkilis may not be as feared as Manny, but he's been more effective.

In this ALCS, two of Boston's hottest hitters are sandwiching Ortiz in the lineup. Second baseman Dustin Pedroia, hitting second, has a .545 batting average and a .643 OBP in the series. Youkilis, batting cleanup behind Ortiz, is at .429 with a .429 OBP.

3. The Rays have figured him out

Ortiz complained earlier in the series that he was seeing nothing but a bunch of off-speed stuff this postseason, but he's still getting his chances to hit fastballs. In Game 3 of the ALCS on Monday, he struck out looking at an outside fastball his first time up (though the ball might have been outside). In the fifth inning, he saw nothing but fastballs in a three-pitch at-bat, popping up to short center on the third pitch. He saw 16 fastballs in his four at-bats.

In Game 2, he flew out to right field on a slider, struck out on a curve and popped out to center on a first-pitch fastball. In Game 1, he popped to center on a slider, grounded out to first on a curve and struck out on a changeup.

The Rays pitched Ortiz well this year. In nine games, he hit just .243 with a .300 OBP. They may have Papi's number, but they're not about to admit it. "He's still probably one of the most dangerous hitters there is," Tampa Bay pitching coach Jim Hickey said.

4. He's just in a slump

As good a postseason performer as Ortiz has been, he's been in this position before. Back in 2003, in a division series win over the A's, he went through an 0-for-16 streak. That year in the ALCS, against the Yankees, he scuffled through an 0-for-12 stretch.

That may well be what he's going through now. "He may look bad one night or not get it done one night, but you cannot take it for granted he's not going to do it the next night," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We're very careful with him, now and forever."

Indeed, the Rays have walked Ortiz four times in the three games, but they've shut him down with men on base. In the ALCS, Ortiz has come to the plate with at least one man on seven times in his 14 plate appearances -- a 50/50 ratio that nearly mirrors that of the regular season, when he made 240 of his 491 plate appearances with men on base -- but has gone 0-for-5 with two walks. So far this postseason, Ortiz has just one extra-base hit and one RBI.

That's a far cry from the Mr. October-like run he was on entering this postseason. From the middle of the 2003 postseason -- after his struggles against the A's and the Yankees -- to the beginning of this one, Ortiz hit .380 with a .479 on-base percentage and a .708 slugging percentage, 10 home runs and 35 RBIs in 36 games as the Red Sox won two World Series.

That was then, though. That was the old Ortiz. And that's the one the Red Sox need if they have any chance to stick around this October.

 
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