In the bottom of the sixth, David Ortiz took a hellacious hack at a 91 mph fastball from Marlins reliever Burke Badenhop, fouling it straight back and narrowly missing a chance to send a ball into orbit. The vicious cut forced Badenhop to come to a conclusion that other pitchers will undoubtedly soon reach: he abandoned any efforts to go after Ortiz with fastballs.
Ortiz, after all, had been doing violence to heaters all night. In the second inning, he smashed Marlins starter Chris Volstad’s 92 mph heater to the warning track. In the fourth, he unloaded on another Volstad heater, clearing the visitor’s bullpen and depositing the ball into the right-field bleachers. Later in that six-run inning, Ortiz zipped a fastball from reliever Badenhop through a shift and into centerfield.
Finally, Badenhop and the Marlins had enough. The Marlins decided that they’d just assume nibble against a slugger with renewed swagger.
With a 2-2 count and the bases empty against Ortiz in the sixth, Badenhop missed the outside corner with two straight sliders to conclude a walk. It marked the third time that Ortiz had reached base in the game, matching a season high. The off-speed stuff from the Marlins reliever might have been a harbinger.
“I think (pitchers) are going to have to start pitching him differently,” said hitting coach Dave Magadan. “He's getting to pitches on time. Three weeks ago he wasn't getting to 89 mph fastballs, but now you have the home run he hit off A.J. Burnett was 96, the home run he hit off CC was 95. He's getting to those pitches now. Now they'll make those adjustments, just like any other time of year when someone starts hitting.”
In the Sox’ 8-2 win over the Marlins (recap here), Ortiz finished the night by matching a season-high in hits (2) and times on base (3) while driving in three runs for the first time this year. More impressive is what he’s now done in the month of June as a whole: despite coming off the bench for two games in Philadelphia, he has four homers this month to complement his .333 average and 1.123 OPS.
“He is swinging the bat right now just like he’s supposed to,” said manager Terry Francona. “He had a couple bad months. He’s going to have to live with looking at that batting average being lower than he wants it to be. But it seems like he is very productive. He’s got a good thing going.
“He went after the ball pretty good,” Sox manager Terry Francona added. “There was some aggression without muscling up. There was some bat speed without trying to generate so much bat speed you use your shoulders. He’s using his hands. I think it’s pretty obvious he’s starting to feel better about himself.”
An adjustment that Ortiz made on his own is responsible for that development. According to Magadan, at the start of the Yankees series at Fenway Park last week, the designated hitter raised his hands and his stance, moving his hands away from his body.
“(It) gave him some room to load and bring his hands in. That allowed him to start being on time,” said Magadan. “Now he’s on time (with his swing) and he’s catching (the ball) out in front a little bit.”
“My swing is all about timing, trying to start everything early to give me time to see the ball, recognize it and do what I want to do,” added Ortiz. “I feel good.”
That Ortiz’ big night came against the Marlins served as something of a reminder. On June 27, 2003, he entered a game against Florida with just three homers on the year, and his teammates kiddingly called him Juan Pierre for his power drought.
But in the Sox’ 25-8 victory in that series opener against the Marlins (the Sox’ 78th game of the year) Ortiz crushed a homer to right-center, and simply never stopped. Starting that day, over the final 85 Red Sox games of the year, Ortiz smashed 28 homers, drove in 68, and established himself as one of the biggest offensive stars in the game.
Now, he once again is taking the aggressive hacks that have been a signature of the man known as Big Papi, rather than ones deserving of comparison to Pierre.
Here are four other things we learned during the Sox’ 499th straight sellout:
IF EVER THERE WAS A TIME FOR THE SIX-MAN ROTATION, THIS IS IT
First, let’s get this out of the way: the Sox are not interested in reinventing the wheel. They have no designs on a permanent or even long-term commitment to having six starters. Even in the short-term, they have their reservations.
Even so, as a makeshift solution that buys the team time to evaluate John Smoltz, Brad Penny, Daisuke Matsuzaka and the trade market, while suppressing the innings of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Tim Wakefield? For that, a six-man rotation seems a reasonable and, in some ways, very useful tactic.
“It might be (a six-man rotation) for a time or two. It certainly could happen,” said Francona. “I don’t know that we need to make our rotation out two weeks ahead of time…But that wouldn’t be the worst thing for a short period of time. Not for a long period because guys won’t pitch enough – with days off and the All-Star break, too many good pitchers won’t pitch enough.”
But this is a period when a six-man rotation will be minimally disruptive. Starting next Tuesday, when they play the Nationals, the Sox will embark upon a stretch of playing 19 games in 20 days heading into the All-Star break. Assuming that the team employed just five starters, each pitcher would have to make at least two starts on four days of rest between now and the break.
As a result, the Sox determined that rather than force Smoltz into the rotation at the expense of someone who is already in it, the team will simply slot the pitcher for his first big-league start of the year next Thursday, June 25. Amidst a stretch of nine games in as many days, that will simply allow the entire rotation to make their final starts of June on five days of rest instead of four.
Sox starters this year are 11-12 with a 5.87 ERA on four days of rest, and 15-3 with a 3.68 ERA with five games of rest.
Following an off-day on July 2, the team will then have the option of either skipping one of its starters to keep everyone on a schedule of five days of rest or of staying in turn for a six-man rotation so that the pitching staff can get some extra measure of rest at a time of year when fatigue can be significant. The team has yet to map out its rotation that far, but it’s keeping its options open.
“The six-man, if in fact this is how it plays out, provides added rest – it does provide a benefit for the guys who have been in the rotation from day one,” said pitching coach John Farrell. “There are times when certain guys you’re hoping to get to the All-Star break to give them that eight-, nine-, 10-day blow, to give them that second wind as you begin the second half of the season.”
A six-man rotation would not be without its flaws, which is part of the reason why the Sox are not committing to it beyond one or two turns in the rotation. If the team keeps all six of its starters on schedule beyond the off day, then it could be slightly disruptive to the routines of pitchers who are regimented to pitch with just four or five days between starts.
That approach could have two drawbacks: 1) The team would be concerned that its pitchers might lose “the touch and feel of some pitches and the consistency of a routine,” said Farrell; and 2) The team will have to shorten its bullpen – when Smoltz is activated on June 25, the Sox likely will have to remove a reliever from the roster.
“(The bullpen) has been a strength of ours since day one,” said Farrell. "We have to be careful not to overload or tax that even further. That can be the downside of (a six-man rotation).”
While there are potential issues with a six-man rotation, there would appear to be no flaws in the fact that the Sox are currently presented with a wealth of options for their pitching staff. At a time of year when some teams are beginning to scramble to find members of the rotation, the Sox’ dilemma is simply how best to employ an apparent surplus at a time when their starters’ performance has been excellent. In 15 games since May 30, the Sox rotation has a 3.30 ERA.
“I really believe this is a scenario that’s going to be a great one, and not one that has much controversy around it,” said Smoltz. “Regardless of how this thing plays out, this team has options. That’s what everybody wants. They don’t want to be stuck in a situation where it’s, ‘Oh – how do we get to the next week or the following week?’ I’m more than pleased to be a part of it.”
THE SOX ARE TRYING TO PRESERVE TIM WAKEFIELD’S BULLETS TO KEEP A GOOD THING GOING
It was another tidy outing for Tim Wakefield, who continued to dominate opponents at Fenway Park. The knuckleballer flummoxed the Marlins for the better part of his six innings of work, allowing two runs on six hits for his ninth quality start of the season, a number that is tied with Josh Beckett for a team high.
Wakefield walked one and struck out four while improving his record to 9-3 and dropping his ERA to 4.39. At Fenway, the knuckleballer improved to 6-0 with a 3.23 ERA in six home starts.
The six straight home starts with a victory to start the year is tied for the second-longest such streak by a Sox pitcher since 1954, matching the marks by Roger Clemens (1986) and Ike Delock (1958), and one behind the standard that Wakefield set by winning seven straight Fenway starts at the beginning of his Red Sox career in 1995. (For the complete list, click here.)
Wakefield has been the Sox’ most consistent starter this year, and the team is trying to prevent anything from happening that might undermine that trait. The knuckleballer threw just 93 pitches in his six innings last night before the Sox pulled him. In his prior two outings, Wakefield threw 81 pitches against the Tigers and 88 against the Yankees.
The team is mindful of the fact that the knuckleballer has had shoulder issues in each of the past two years. That being the case, the Sox are limiting his pitches, while also acknowledging that the 42-year-old Wakefield might benefit from the extra rest that would result from a six-man rotation in the coming couple of weeks.
“We are trying to learn from history to keep him going longer like he can pitch. In the last couple years, we have gotten towards the end and he’s worn down and his shoulder’s bothered him,” said Francona. “I don’t see that happening right now. And if we can be cognizant of that we won’t get to that point.”
The combination of low pitch counts along with changes to his post-outing routine – namely a greater emphasis on stretching after outings (in addition to the usual icing) – and his between-starts routine has the knuckleballer feeling stronger at this stage of the season than he has in recent years.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to have big enough leads to take me out early enough to preserve the bullets, so to speak,” said Wakefield. “I’ve been hurt the last few years late in the season. I know we discussed taking some time off during the season. I did a lot of work in the offseason and I’m doing a lot of work during the season with the training staff trying to stay healthy. I feel unbelievable at this point in the season.”
DANIEL BARD HAS THE POWER TO FORGET, AND TO IGNORE HIS ROSTER STATUS
On Sunday, Daniel Bard endured the worst professional outing of his career: he lasted just two outs, allowing four runs on three walks and two hits. His ERA, which stood at a svelte 0.75 entering the contest against the Phillies, ballooned to 3.55.
The event was noteworthy. Though Bard demonstrated last year that he had the capacity to dominate as a minor-league reliever, there were some talent evaluators around the game who wondered whether he would be able to rebound from adversity. And so, his first outing following Sunday’s struggle in Philadelphia represented something of a test to some.
Though it wasn’t exactly the final game of the World Series, Bard passed any such test on Tuesday with flying colors.
“I think we’ve all been impressed with how he’s handled this environment,” said Sox pitching coach John Farrell. “One of the traits of a good late-inning reliever is his ability to forget about his most recent outing, to have a short-term memory. If tonight is any indication, it was certainly all positive.”
Bard was summoned for the ninth inning, and delivered a scoreless frame that was highlighted by a 98 mph fastball that he used to overpower Marlins superstar Hanley Ramirez, who swung and missed three times at Bard’s heater. Bard maintained a confident air on the mound, and showed no signs that he’d been humbled by his biggest struggle to date as a major leaguer.
“I went into today’s (outing) thinking about slamming the door,” said Bard. “If you dwell on it and start worrying about it, it’s going to turn into two or three or four bad ones in a row. You learn from it and you move on from the last one.”
By and large, Bard has been dominant in his first taste of the majors. Even so, with Smoltz set to return to the Sox, Bard is aware that there might be questions about whether he becomes a victim of his options. He chooses to focus less on that fact than on his ability to make the Sox think long and hard about any potential return to Pawtucket.
“I’m not going to worry about it. I’m not working in the front office,” said Bard. “What I’m going to do is try to make the decision as tough for them as possible. That’s all I can do. Obviously, I want to be here.
“I want to be helping this team. But whatever happens, if that is the case where I get moved down, I’m sure that something will happen along the way, whether it’s soon or it’s September. I’m not worried about that right now.”
Bard does have one potential draft card. His little brother, Luke, was recently drafted by the Sox, who would love to sign the young pitcher.
Could Bard use that fact to issue an ultimatum?
“(Luke) won’t sign if you move me down,” a grinning Bard contemplated telling the Sox. “No chance.”
JED LOWRIE IS READY TO START PLAYING
Though Jed Lowrie was admittedly rusty, the shortstop took a meaningful step forward in his rehab on Monday and Tuesday by taking live batting practice against Sox minor leaguers who have reported to Single-A Lowell. He is scheduled to fly to Fort Myers on Wednesday, where he will play in extended spring training games on both Thursday and Friday.
From there, Lowrie is likely to begin a rehab assignment with Triple-A Pawtucket. While Francona suggested that a one-week rehab assignment “might be a little quick” given the amount of time that the 25-year-old has missed, barring a setback, a return in the final days of June or beginning days of July seems likely.