Nothing seemed particularly striking about the blast. Last Sept. 22, against Zach Jackson of the Indians, David Ortiz jumped on a fastball on the inner half of the plate, sending it into the Red Sox bullpen in right-center for a solo homer. It was his second round-tripper in as many games and his fifth in an eight-day stretch.
But then, nothing. Ortiz did not clear the fences again in the waning days of last regular season (though he did go deep once in the playoffs). He did not go deep this April. The zero splashed in the HR column under his name refused to go away. Ortiz, who admitted that he contemplated that empty number every day, was driven to the brink of madness.
“My pressing was from missing pitches that I normally hit or sometimes putting a good swing on it and still missing it,” said Ortiz. “That’s crazy. It gets you thinking and puts you in a situation where you’ll be like, what do I have to do? I’ve tried it all. I was about to hit right-handed.”
Ortiz started yesterday’s game with a pair of miserable at-bats, hitting a weak grounder to first on a first-pitch fastball, then later striking out with a weak swing on another heater. One-hundred forty-nine at-bats had passed since Ortiz had victimized Jackson. The epic drought was the longest of the slugger’s career.
But finally, in at-bat No. 150, when he toted an even .200 average to the plate, Ortiz unloaded on a 1-1 fastball with a runner on third and two outs in the bottom of the fifth against Blue Jays left-hander Brett Cecil, sending it deep towards center.
The crowd roared, and the extra breath may have helped to push the ball just over the wall in centerfield and into the camera well. A frenzy of 38,099 patrons erupted as Ortiz went from a sprint to a trot. When the slugger crossed the plate, he stopped, taking a bit more time than usual for his point towards and conversation with the heavens.
“I got that big old monkey off my back, you know?” Ortiz reflected. “You have to understand, sometimes, that’s all it takes, to have a good at-bat and get a big hit and start clicking.”
At home, Ortiz was embraced, first by Dustin Pedroia, then Kevin Youkilis and Jason Bay. The Sox gave him the silent treatment for just a moment when he entered the dugout, before the pile-on occurred, the full team erupting in celebration. The fans joined, until Ortiz accepted the invitation to a curtain call for his first homer of the season.
“Finally. FINALLY,” said shortstop Julio Lugo. “It was an amazing day. You’ve seen David Ortiz waiting for so long to hit a home run. I don’t think you’re going to see that very often.”
As if to highlight the collective sense of relief, the homer by Ortiz – which followed one that had been struck earlier in the inning by Jason Varitek – sparked a record-tying rally. The Sox went on to hit two more homers, with Jason Bay and Mike Lowell doing the honors back-to-back to give the team four round-trippers in the fifth, tying a mark set 10 times previously.
For the first time in nine games, the Sox had scored more than five runs. All told, Boston crossed the plate eight times on Wednesday, the team’s biggest offensive output since May 7.
Here are five lessons from Ortiz’ homer and his club’s 8-3 victory over the first-place Blue Jays:
THE MOST SIGNIFICANT SWINGS DAVID ORTIZ TOOK MIGHT HAVE COME AFTER THE HOMER
It was, of all things, a swing and miss that revealed the scale of the burden that had been lifted from Ortiz.
After his fifth-inning homer, Ortiz returned to the plate in the bottom of the sixth against reliever Shawn Camp. The right-hander offered a first-pitch changeup.
The designated hitter swung through it, but this was no ordinary miss. The swing featured the signature elements of the slugger’s aggression that had been lost during this season of searching: Ortiz torqued with incredible force, his bat wrapping violently behind him.
This was not Ortiz trying to drop a soft line drive to left. THIS was the image of the Ortiz who averaged 39 homers a year in his first six seasons with the Sox, a notion that received further support when he drove a double off the base of the Wall in left-center in an eighth-inning at-bat.
“You could even see, after he took that swing, the next at-bat he made an out, but the commitment to the swing was better,” said Sox manager Terry Francona. “Then he stays through the ball and hits the ball off the wall.”
Ortiz described the difference in enthusiastically profane terms:
“(It was a) swing like a man, not like a little (expletive),” said Ortiz. “I put a good swing on the ball, hit a homer, took another good swing and struck out and then coming out and taking a good swing for the double, it’s a great feeling.
“I feel like I got all my confidence back. Let me tell you. I look like a real hitter out there, not like the Punch and Judy (hitter) I have been for the first 40 games,” he added. “I’m just going to maintain it that way. I figured something out tonight that I’m going to keep on trying to do. It was just from one at-bat to another.”
We will know the degree to which there is carry-over once Ortiz hits homer No. 2.
JASON VARITEK IS STRONG AS A (RIGHT-HANDED) LUMBERJACK
Even a 2008 season of offensive woe, Jason Varitek remained a threat as a right-handed hitter. The switch-hitter tagged lefties to the tune of a .284 average and .863 OPS.
“Against left-handers, he’s always going to be big,” said Francona. “Because of his right-handed presence, it can make our lineup a lot thicker.”
Varitek reinforced that point on Wednesday. With the Red Sox otherwise unable to do anything against Toronto rookie Brett Cecil in the early going, Varitek jump-started the offense against the left-hander. He jumped on a hanging slider and pounded it into the Monster Seats in the third inning to give the Sox a 1-0 lead, then led off the fifth by driving a 90 mph fastball into the centerfield bleachers for his first two-homer game since 2005. (In the realm of the entirely random, since 2001, Varitek is hitting .548 (17-for-31) with nine homers and 18 RBIs on May 20, including a three-homer effort on May 20, 2001.)
This year, Varitek is now crushing lefties for a .304 average, team-leading .870 slugging mark and 1.263 OPS. He has gone deep four times against southpaws this year.
Overall, a player for whom offense was viewed as a bonus rather than an expectation when he re-signed this year has offered the Sox production that has been far better than could have been expected.
He leads major-league catchers with seven homers, and while his average (.243) and OBP (.328) are merely adequate, he has a .514 slugging mark, evidence that he is smoking the ball when he makes contact. (Sixteen of the catcher’s 27 hits this year have been for extra bases.)
“As long as he’s making good contact, he has that ability at any time and in any count to go deep. That’s the greatest thing about him,” said Kevin Youkilis. “The power is never a problem, I think, with Jason Varitek. He’s one of the strongest guys on the team. If he makes good contact, the ball is going to go a long way. When he takes B.P., it’s one of the most amazing things how the ball jumps off his bat because he’s so strong.”
Predictably, Varitek did his best to deflect any attention to his performance.
“I’m not really going to talk too much about my hitting,” he said. “My importance comes with what I wear back there, and I understand that.”
While that is no doubt true, there is also no question that he is even more valuable when he can contribute meaningfully as a hitter, particularly one who drives the ball.
“He’s not hitting where he used to but two-, three-run homers are always welcome and he has that ability,” said Francona. “It is big. If he doesn’t hit .300, that doesn’t mean we can’t win.”
One word of caution about the performance, however: a year ago today, Varitek went 2-for-3 with a homer and walk to improve his season average to .295 with six homers, a .372 OBP, .519 slugging and .892 OPS.
From that point on, his season at the plate – at least left-handed – was a mess. Given that recent history, it would be premature to draw conclusions about what he might deliver at the plate going forward this year.
KEVIN YOUKILIS IS CAPABLE OF AMAZING SOME OF HIS TEAMMATES
The timing of Kevin Youkilis’ oblique strain, seemingly, could not have been worse for the first baseman. He was hitting .393 with a .505 OBP and .719 slugging mark. Yet as impressive as his pre-injury performance might have been, his return was nearly as impressive.
Youkilis, after going 0-for-6 in his two rehab games with Triple-A Pawtucket, seemed to regain his timing in his first at-bat, when he hooked a single through the hole between third and short. It was his first of three singles in his first look at big-league pitching since May 4.
“The timing, it’s going to be off just a little bit. You’re just hoping to find a rhythm and get your body back in sync,” he shrugged. “I just went up there and tried to get my timing down. I felt good.”
With the three-hit game, Youkilis is now hitting .404.
“It looked like he was struggling to get back in the swing of things,” joked Francona. “He’s a good hitter. Just a good hitter.”
BRAD PENNY CONTINUED HIS UNUSUAL FORMULA FOR SUCCESS
It has become standard operating procedure. Once again, Brad Penny didn’t strike anyone out (more literally, he struck out two). Once again he succeeded despite that fact.
His manager afterwards described the pitcher as “decent,” far from high praise. Yet he held a team that entered yesterday with the most runs in the majors in check.
On a night when he said that his fastball command was pretty good and he had no reliable off-speed pitches to throw for strikes, Penny still carried a shutout through the first six innings. He allowed a pair of runs in the seventh, getting lifted with two outs, but positioned his team to win.
Penny turned in his fifth quality start of the season, tied with Josh Beckett for second on the team behind Tim Wakefield’s six. For the sixth time in his eight starts this year, Penny struck out two or fewer. He was hittable, having permitted nine hits, but thanks to excellent defense (notably, the work of Jacoby Ellsbury to track down 11 fly balls, and a sharp double-play turned by Mike Lowell), he held the Jays in check throughout the night.
Contact is a viable strategy for Penny because he has avoided homers (he hasn’t allowed any in his last four starts) and walks (he allowed one on Wednesday, and has issued six in his last 25.1 frames).
“If I started trying to strike everyone out, I’d be in the fifth inning with 100 pitches.
I want first, second, third pitch swinging,” said Penny. “I didn’t really have anything good off-speed, but I kept throwing it to give them a different look. They just kept hitting it right at people…A lot of 2-0, 3-1, they were chasing balls for me, popping them up.”
FENWAY PARK IS VERY, VERY FRIENDLY FOR THE RED SOX
The entire Red Sox lineup seemed inspired. Every Boston batter collected at least one hit, and the team’s offensive outburst was its largest since May 7. But then, it was no real surprise to see the team erupt back at Fenway.
On the season, the Sox are averaging 6.5 runs a game at Fenway. The club leads the majors in home average (.310), OBP (.390) and slugging (.543), while its solid 4.21 ERA at Fenway has lent itself to a 15-4 home mark that is best in the American League.
On the road, meanwhile, the team is averaging just 4.5 runs per game with a .248 average (18th in the majors), .342 OBP (10th) and .389 slugging mark (21st). On the road, they are 9-12 with a 5.12 ERA.