Once again, David Ortiz.
His 10th-inning solo homer rescued the Red Sox from a potentially devastating defeat, instead allowing the team to salvage a 7-6 victory from an otherwise deflating series in Oakland that would have been downright disastrous had the A's won on Sunday. The blast underscored the degree to which, even now, at 38 years old, Ortiz remains the ultimate game-changer for the Red Sox, the crutch that is keeping a struggling offense from toppling completely.
The Red Sox rank 25th in the big leagues in homers with a paltry 56. That number would look drastically worse but for the 17 round trippers (30 percent of the team's total) from Ortiz.
At 38, he is the team's lone source of consistent thump. Even in a period where he's struggled with inconsistent results, he's still delivered in pivotal moments, most notably, with two 10th-inning homers in the past week -- first on Wednesday to tie a game against the Twins at home, then on Sunday to give the Sox a win in Oakland.
As much as the Sox' spring training extension of him drew criticism, his leverage to extract even more money only would have grown over the course of this season given the limitations of the rest of the lineup. The Sox need him more than ever right now.
As they land in Seattle to start a three-game series against the Mariners, the Sox' hopes of climbing back into the pennant race without a healthy Ortiz seem almost unfathomable. That reality makes it mind-blowing to contemplate the circumstances of the team's visit to Safeco Field just over five years ago, likely the nadir of Ortiz's decorated career.
The Red Sox played a three-game series in Seattle from May 15-17, 2009. Ortiz did not. The slugger sat out the entire series following an 0-for-7 performance (which included three strikeouts) against the Angels on May 14 that dropped his season line to .208 with a .318 OBP and .300 slugging mark, a series punctuated by a sullen explanation to reporters, "Just put down, 'Papi stinks.' "
At the time, many wondered openly whether it was the beginning of the end for Ortiz, whether his days as a great power hitter were done. This wasn't a one-week slump -- he endured two months of hell, following a significant wrist injury (a partial tear of the sheath keeping the ECU tendon in his wrist in place) in 2008, and the speculation machine was in overdrive. He'd lost bat speed, he'd fallen apart without Manny Ramirez, he'd aged suddenly, he'd doctored his birth certificate and was actually 34 or 36 or 45 ...
He looked so bad, so overmatched that there were ongoing conversations not only about whether the Red Sox would pick up their team option for 2011 but whether he would be released that year. Each hitless game seemed to nudge him closer to a cliff in the collective eyes of the baseball world.
Through the Sox' first 55 games, he was hitting .188 with a .281 OBP, a .288 slugging mark and just one home run. It was painful to watch, but more painful for him to live through.
"I couldn't even watch TV, any sports channel at the time, because it was nothing but, 'He's done.' You're struggling and people are saying that you're done, it doesn't help," recalled Ortiz. "That's when your mind has to start processing that and next thing you know, 'I'm out.' "
With hindsight, Ortiz finds it hard to fathom the dialogue that surrounded him, those who wondered whether his performance dip was permanent.
"It wasn't like I was declining or anything like that. That's the first thing people put in their heads. I'm 38 and I'm still hitting 97 mph fastballs. They said my bat speed was shutting down back then," he said. "I was, what, I was 33 years old. How many 33-year-olds you see losing bat speed? I haven't seen that many. Especially a guy coming off an injury."
As the world told him that he was in an extreme decline that suggested the possibility of his career being all but over, Ortiz had to learn to put up blinders and to try to figure out what was wrong without getting overwhelmed by the notion that his career was in jeopardy. The psychological toll of his struggles was considerable -- as evidenced by the decision of then-manager Terry Francona to let him sit out for the entirety of the series against the Mariners that May -- but the DH was prepared to keep fighting.
"I grew up tough. I know what being tough is all about. Life is not all roses and flowers. There's a lot of bumps in the road you have to face, and I think that was one of them," said Ortiz. "But here we are still."
The eureka moment finally came in the form of a call from a longtime friend from the Dominican, someone who had played with Ortiz dating to their time together in Little League. He picked up on a bad habit that the slugger had developed in his return from his wrist injury.
"When I came back [for the final months of 2008], I was doing OK, but there was still soreness. Your brain becomes overprotective. I remember that I didn't really let it go because I was afraid of it snapping again because it was swinging that I hurt it," said Ortiz. "My bottom hand was doing [all the work in his swing], starting and finishing."
Ortiz -- never one to rein in his swing -- wasn't allowing himself to let loose with the top (left) hand, the one that he had injured. That was and is the hand that allows his swing to be direct to the ball; the bottom hand is typically the one that controls the swing's finish.
Without the top hand firing, Ortiz's swing path around the ball became circular rather than direct, with the result being what felt like a billion strikeouts and pop-ups.
"Everything was under, under, under, until a friend of mine who'd played with me and known me a long time called and said, 'Hey, you're looping. You've got to work on stopping looping,' " said Ortiz. "The time off the doctor wanted me to take until the next season kind of got me into bad habits. That's why I was looping. I was seeing the ball good. But I was underneath the ball all the time. That was a major reason for my struggle until I figured out and started working on my top hand. Once I figured it out, it was over."
Over 101 games from June 5 through the end of the season, Ortiz reclaimed his stature as one of the game's foremost mashers. He hit .266 with a .360 OBP, a .557 slugging mark and 27 homers, concluding the year with 28 homers and 99 RBIs -- improbably plateaus given the canyon where he'd taken up residence in the first two months of the year.
With the exception of an occasional struggle of a couple of weeks to a month (he got off to a putrid start again in April 2010, for instance), Ortiz hasn't looked back. Nor has he ever faced the kind of self-doubt that he confronted at that time, now that he's armed with the experience of having returned from the depths.
In the five-plus years since he sat out the entirety of that series in Seattle, Ortiz has launched 159 homers, the seventh largest total in the majors. He's hitting .286 with a .379 OBP (12th best in the majors, min. 1,500 plate appearances) and .543 slugging mark (eighth best in the majors, just ahead of Giancarlo Stanton, Joey Votto and Josh Hamilton). He also delivered one of the most dominant World Series performances ever last October.
That success has made it easy to forget the worst of times. Yet Ortiz carries the lessons of those struggles with him. In some ways, that challenge -- in no small part the result of how he recovered from his wrist injury in 2008 -- positioned him for his ongoing performance at this stage of his career, in which he's come back from an Achilles injury in 2012 to remain a force.
"I never struggled that bad. And I was in my prime. Being in your prime and struggling that bad, it tells you. I'm not going to lie to you. I was injured, but I thought everything was going to go back to normal, like I used to be. I probably took a few things for granted," said Ortiz. "I probably should have been hitting earlier than I did. I didn't. It gave me trouble later on. I learned from that.
"The reason why this organization signed me going through an injury like [an Achilles strain that sidelined him for the final two-plus months of the 2012 season], it's because they know how responsible I am when it comes down to being prepared to play the season. I learned that from that time."
And then, of course, there was the mental side of things, the understanding that a sense of well-being can't always be dependent upon results, and of the importance of maintaining confidence through even what seems like a crisis.
"I learned a lot. I learned so many things. I found out how strong I was mentally by going through it," said Ortiz. "You know what? I think of myself way better than I used to. It's because of that time, plus experience," said Ortiz. "I don't get too greedy. I don't get as greedy as I used to when I was younger. When I was younger, I just wanted to hit every ball 500 feet. Right now, I take my pitches the other way. I understand more of the game than I used to. I understand that I don't have the ability that I used to but I know that I still do damage. I try to take advantage of my experience. I go to the plate with an idea about the things I want to do, what I'm looking for, the way the pitcher wants to pitch me.
"In my case, I just try to stay healthy as long as I can. Your body starts giving up on you at some point. That's the major problem when it comes down to a guy my age. How long can you stay on the field? I try to take care of that every day, because mentally, I know I'm prepared for whatever. I don't think that anyone can hit bottom like I did in 2009. When I see these young guys struggling, I come to them and say, 'This is a learning process. You haven't hit bottom.'
"The one thing that I remember about 2008 and 2009, besides my boy telling me about my looping, he said, 'Do you remember when we played Little League, what we used to do before the game?' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'What was it?' I said, 'Nothing. Just go and see the ball and try to hit it.' He said, 'That's what you need to do now. Forget about everything. Just have fun, see the baseball and try to hit it. Don't worry about anything else.'
"It's worked for me."