David Ortiz is fighting perception.
The belief in these parts of late – prior to the Red Sox’ 10-9 win over the Blue Jays on Tuesday night at the Rogers Centre in Toronto (recap) -- is that Ortiz hasn’t been giving the Red Sox what they desperately need, some kind of punch, anything close to that old Ortiz kind of giddy-up.
Surely, the thought was, Ortiz was on the outs. Flashbacks to moments such as Justin Verlander blowing fastballs past the designated hitter last week seemed to lock in opinions regarding the slugger. He wasn’t even in the original lineup in the series opener, and when his name was inserted it could be found in the No. 7 spot against Jays left-hander Ricky Romero.
People saw the numbers: .247 in July and only .182 through 18 days of August.
But, as the Red Sox’ win showed, the Red Sox not only need Ortiz, but, perhaps more than people realize, the Red Sox are getting Ortiz.
This time around Ortiz played an enormous part in the Red Sox’ offensive explosion, notching two hits – a two-run double and solo home run – while kicking off the team’s pivotal eighth inning with a leadoff walk.
Since returning from his New York nightmare (press conference and all), Ortiz has at least hinted at being the Papi of old. Starting with the first game of the Detroit series at Fenway, Ortiz has totaled a .296 average with three home runs, eight walks and a 1.161 OPS (second-best on the team).
Maybe it’s hitting in the seven-hole, where in two games he is now 4-for-6 with four walks and two homers. A more likely scenario, however, is that Ortiz was trending this way before being sidetracked by the distraction of his steroid allegations.
Following the day he first learned that his name was going to be included in the performance-enhancing drug news cycle, Ortiz played in eight games up until he left New York. During that stretch he hit .125 with an OPS of .472.
Take out that hiccup and there is evidence that Ortiz has been helping more than hurting, just not in the in-your-face manner of Tuesday night. Without the eight-game nightmare, Ortiz is hitting .278 with 16 homers since June 1. Numbers, especially this Red Sox lineup can live with.
When will Ortiz regain the complete confidence of those hoping for something close to the slugger’s previous production? That is impossible to predict, but Tuesday night certainly woke more than just the Blue Jays up when it came to the perception of Papi.
Here are four more things we learned as the Red Sox pulled back even with the Rangers in the wild card…
NOT THE NORM FOR BECKETT
Josh Beckett likes his routines.
He talks to the media on the record the day he pitches, and the day after. That’s it. He goes through the exact same regimen with Red Sox strength and conditioning coach Dave Page each day in between starts. Exact. And when it comes to throwing to a catcher come game day, the Sox ace has developed a sense of security in having Jason Varitek serve as his battery-mate.
Tuesday night, because of Varitek’s stiff neck (“He could have played -- I just don’t know if that would have been smart,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona told reporters), Beckett was thrown a curve. For the first time ever – bullpen or game – Victor Martinez was thrust into action to catch the righty, just as backup George Kottaras had been on two previous occasions this season.
When it was all said and done the numbers for this season were hard to ignore: Beckett in games started by Varitek – 14-2, 2.52 ERA; Beckett in three games started by somebody else -- 0-2 record, 16 innings, 30 hits, and a 11.25 ERA.
The comfort level with Varitek has taken time to build. In the duo’s first season together there was some work to do. For example, three months into that 2006 season, Beckett had to meet with the catcher to explain that he wasn’t solely a fastball-curveball pitcher, and that his changeup had to start being implemented into the game-plan.
But, despite those initial bumps in the road, Beckett swears by Varitek, and relies heavily on the catcher’s game-calling. (The Sox’ hurler admits that he doesn’t pour over the scouting reports, but leaves much of the game-planning to his catcher.)
This time around – whether because of the different backstop, the absence of pitching coach John Farrell (who went home to tend to a personal matter) or simply due to an overall lack of command – Beckett’s world got turned upside down. In 5 1/3 innings he allowed seven runs on nine hits.
Beckett hadn’t walked more than two batters in any one game in any of his last 14 starts, yet issued four of them against the Blue Jays. He also hadn’t given up as many as three home runs in any game this season, until Tuesday night.
“I didn’t have much,’’ Beckett told reporters. “It was one of those days. It doesn’t have anything to do with health. I feel great. It’s just the stuff wasn’t there. I felt fine. I had energy and everything like that. When I went to make my pitch, it just didn’t come out.’’
Considering, as WEEI.com’s Alex Speier pointed out in his article “The Ace Ascendant: Josh Beckett’s Path To Domiance in 2009,” Beckett had eight starts in which he hadn’t allowed a run (the most in the majors for outings six innings or more), this was out of the ordinary in so many ways. It was also the first time in 18 straight starts that he hadn’t gone at least six innings.
“I think we’ve just gotten so used to seeing him giving up a run or two, or three on the high side,” Jason Bay told the Boston Herald. “We got those four runs and it’s like, ‘OK, Josh is out there.’ That’s why you play the game. It’s not always automatic.”
YOUKILIS, GREEN LENGTHENED THE LINEUP
Kevin Youkilis made sure he didn’t play the ‘rust’ card after returning to the Sox’ lineup for the first time since last Tuesday thanks to a five-game suspension. In his first at-bat he rifled Ricky Romero’s fourth pitch to center for a leadoff double. Two batters later he was coming around with the Red Sox’ first run on Ortiz’ two-run double.
But, as is usually the case, there was more to Youkilis’ value that just that one hit.
In five plate appearances Youkilis saw 28 pitches. Twenty-eight! That’s 5.60 per trip to the dish. (As a team the Red Sox faced 3.93 pitches per plate appearance, with Nick Green seeing 24, and Mike Lowell and Jason Bay each witnessing 21 apiece.)
Having Youkilis in the cleanup spot is good for both the player in the team. In 45 games hitting fourth, the righty hitter has now totaled a .376 batting average with a gaudy .497 on-base percentage.
Meanwhile, Victor Martinez could hit in the No. 3 spot, where he is batting .301 compared to the .190 clip the first baseman/catcher had managed in the cleanup spot.
Then there was Green, who was called into action when Dustin Pedroia headed home to be with his wife, Kelli, who delivered the couple’s first baby, Dylan, Tuesday night. (The arrival of the baby boy came one day after Pedroia’s own birthday.)
Besides his ability to see a multitude of pitches, there wouldn’t seem to be much value in the substitute second baseman’s presence Tuesday night. But he did just enough to limit the pressure put on No. 9 hitter Alex Gonzalez.
In the eighth inning, after Ortiz drew his leadoff walk, Green capped off an eight-pitch at-bat by rifling a single into left field. All Gonzalez had to do at that point was put down a bunt, which Jays pitcher Casey Janssen just happened to throw away to allow both Ortiz and Green to come around with the go-ahead runs.
Making any contribution by Green even more important was the fact that the Red Sox had compiled a 1-4 mark with Pedroia out of the lineup heading into Tuesday night.
Returning to Youkilis for a moment, the corner infielder did vent prior to the game about the scrutiny that has fallen upon his decision to charge Rick Porcello after getting drilled in the ribs by a pitch last week. Youkilis was suspended five games, but insisted that he was fed up with criticism surrounding his mound charge.
“I don’t care anymore,” Youkilis told reporters. “If you guys want to keep writing the crap you write, keep writing whatever you want. Sometimes you guys, I think, it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. A lot of people are questioning what I did. I’ve heard a lot of things around Boston lately. I just think it is what it is.”
IT COULDN’T LAST FOREVER
If you were the Red Sox, you couldn’t help but have been optimistic about your chances when up by three runs with Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon serving as the gateway to a victory.
For one, Bard pitching on the Rogers Centre mound had become one of the Sox’ comfiest security blankets this season. Entering Tuesday night the reliever had faced 12 batters in Toronto, struck out eight of them and retired 11 (the lone batter to reach base coming on a walk).
The trend looked to be continuing in the eighth when Bard got Vernon Wells to pop up before striking out Randy Ruiz. But then came the first two hits against Bard North of the Border, back-to-back singles from Edwin Encarncion and Rod Barajas, and the rookie was back to reality.
That’s where Papelbon came in.
First, the closer kicked off his appearance by walking newly-called up Travis Snider (who had kicked off his return to the majors earlier in the evening with a home run off Beckett). The free pass wasn’t the norm of late for Papelbon, who after struggling with some command issues before the All-Star break had only given up two walks in the second half while striking out 15. It was his first walk in five August appearances.
But even with the misstep against Snider, some could argue that Papelbon had the Jays right where he wanted them, with the bases loaded. Entering his showdown with Marco Scutaro – who has been on base more times than any American League hitter this season but failed to reach in any of his first four at-bats – the Sox’ closer had faced eight batters with the bases full and struck out seven of them.
This time, however, Scutaro jumped on a misplaced, first-pitch fastball and singled in two runs to bring Toronto with a run.
Papelbon would hold on, walking Aaron Hill but rebounding to return to his previous form with the bases loaded by getting Adam Lind on a deep fly ball to left field.
In the ninth Papelbon allowed two more baserunners before finally getting Barajas to end the game via a pop-up to Youkilis for the game-ender. When it was all said and done, the reliever had thrown 33 pitches, only 17 of which were strikes.
“My body wasn’t in there clickin’ in that usual state that it’s in,” Papelbon told the Boston Herald. “After the off day I just felt real heavy . . . it was one of those days where you just say, ‘You know what? I don’t have my best stuff, don’t have my best delivery, but I have to ground it out and do what I can to preserve this.’ ”
WAKEFIELD WILL HAVE TO WAIT
Tim Wakefield will not be making his return to the Red Sox this weekend.
With the nerve problem in his left calf still lingering, the Red Sox have decided to give the pitcher another rehab start, sending him back to the Pawtucket Red Sox to start Friday. Prior to that the plan is for Wakefield to sit down and have another conversation with team medical director Dr. Thomas Gill.
“We know what’s going on with his back. Again, this is a tough decision to make,” Francona told reporters. “I think we all think he can help us on the mound. But there are some other issues involved - fielding your position, is it going to get weaker, is he going to hurt himself in another area? So we’ll do the best we can.’’
Wakefield threw a bullpen session to Victor Martinez Tuesday before doing some running in the outfield and on the treadmill.
“I think the biggest concern that the Red Sox have is, am I going to hurt myself for the rest of the season and the rest of my career?’’ Wakefield told the Boston Globe. “I think that’s the big question mark and I need to sit down with the doctors and decide whether or not that’s going to happen.’’
In other news, John Smoltz, who was officially released by the Red Sox Monday, is expected to sign with the St. Louis Cardinals Wednesday afternoon.
Also, Paul Byrd will make his third start in the minors for the Sox since signing a minor league deal, pitching the night-cap for the PawSox in Pawtucket Wednesday night (7:05).