BALTIMORE — David Ortiz was worried about the middle of the Red Sox batting order. Sitting on a wooden bench just outside the Red Sox’ minor league training facility in Fort Myers, Fla., he said as much.
Jason Bay, who thrives with his unassuming persona, has sold himself on Ortiz.
“I think you can get no better,” said Ortiz after the Red Sox’ 9-3 win over the Orioles, Sunday at Camden Yards. “He has done so well. There’s no better.”
So, in the mind of Ortiz, has Bay earned his spot among the middle-of-the-order elite, where only hitters like Manny Ramirez know the secret handshake?
“I think so,” Ortiz said.
Right there in the same conversation as Manny?
“Hell, yeah. Look at the guy’s numbers, man,” Ortiz pronounced. “Those are the type of numbers you want to see in the middle of the order.”
So, now that Ortiz’ fears regarding the absence of a big bat have been tempered thanks to Bay’s 35-home run season, is the designated hitter now stressing about losing the free agent-to-be?
“He’ll be back,” Ortiz said with a grin. “I won’t let him go.”
That remains to be seen. There will be plenty of time for debate regarding how much Bay will garner in the open market. Who will make more, Bay or Matt Holliday? What is the over-under for what the outfielder will make per year? How irreplaceable is Bay? All of it figures to be ripe for drama heading toward those post-World Series days.
But what Sunday offered was an opportunity to stop and appreciate how exactly Bay got to the point that allowed the likes of Ortiz to buy into the left fielder’s meat-of-the-order viability.
Bay turned 31 Sunday. And he tied his career high with his 35th home run Sunday. What better time to reflect, starting with the day he officially started his homer-hitting ways as an 11-year-old with the Bella Tire Little League team?
“I bunted and I flew. I was this super-crouch guy, just trying to walk,” remembered Bay, who was back in the lineup Sunday after taking an IV to help remedy his flu-like symptoms. “I was in Little League and I was 11. I got drilled in the helmet, with it cracking my helmet, off one of the nastiest guys in the league. I came back and I was petrified. I was like, ‘I’m done, I’m not going back up to bat.’ Well, we had one kid on the bench and he was like, ‘I’m not going in, I’m not going in.’ So I had to go back out, scared to death, and I hit a home run. That was the first one.”
Then there was his first major league homer, on May 23, 2003, off of Arizona’s Matt Mantei, which also just happened to be Bay’s first major league hit.
Those moments, of course, led to Bay’s current lot in life, one that is playing a major role in the optimism surrounding the Red Sox these days.
Bay hit just four home runs in June and one in July, yet here he is with 35, just four shy of American League-leader Carlos Pena. Ask him about the two-month drought — or even August and September, in which he has now combined for 15 homers — and it will be pointed out that the long ball isn’t the priority. Walks and RBI — that, in the mind of Bay, is where it is at.
In 133 games, Bay has walked 89 times, eight more than he managed in 155 games last season. He has 110 RBI, the most in his seven-year major league career.
“You like to think you’re going to be consistent and you’re going to end up numerically where you want to be,” Bay said. “There’s been some ups and downs throughout the year, but personally I’m very happy the way things have gone, and it’s not over.”
So, with Bay's 31st birthday now in the books, taking stock of his presence wouldn’t be complete without some sort of look to where Bay might end up, or how long he might play.
“I don’t have a perfect time, but I would say I want to keep playing as long as I’m productive,” he said. “I don’t really foresee myself taking that minor league deal. I don’t see that. I could be wrong. As long as I’m being productive.”
So, does two more contracts sound right?
“Definitely one,” said Bay. “It depends on how long that one is.”
(We almost were able to avoid that free agency talk.)
Here are four more things we learned on a day when the Red Sox bludgeoned the Orioles for the final time in 2009, claiming a 16th win in 18 contests against Baltimore …
IT WASN’T A STEP BACK
It wasn't as good as last time, but it was good enough.
Daisuke Matsuzaka went 5-1/3 innings, giving up three runs on eight hits while striking out five, walking one, and throwing 110 pitches. He did allow a two-run homer to Luke Scott in the fourth inning, but, all in all, the performance was not only good enough to help the Red Sox triumph at Camden Yards, but keep some optimism in the pitcher's corner.
"I thought he did a pretty good job of attacking the zone. His slider, I think he threw some good ones, some that were a little bit inconsistent. I think that's coming with the arm strength, the repetition in games and the feel," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "I thought he had pretty good life. Getting the lead early certainly doesn't hurt. He ran his pitch count up pretty good, but it also got him up to a point ... he's out there pitching, not with fatigue, but pitching not just on two innings and it's a rehab stint, but he's competing and he's making pitches when he's out there for a while, which is also good."
Matsuzaka also shared Francona's "some good, some bad" analysis of the hurler's second outing since coming off the 60-day disabled list.
"There were some hits there that I wasn’t too happy to see, but more than anything I’m glad that we got the win today," Matsuzaka said through translator Masa Hoshino. "Today was not as good as my last start, but I also feel that gradually, my stuff is getting better. I also think that the other good sign today is that I was able to get over 100 pitches."
Matsuzaka threw first-pitch strikes to 16 of his 24 batters, including nine of the initial 11 hitters he faced.
"It was fairly easy to get ahead, but I also feel that after I got ahead in the count maybe my pitches weren’t as tight as they needed to be," said Matsuzaka, who will next pitch at Yankee Stadium on Saturday. "I’m a fly ball pitcher to begin with, but I think the fact that there were a lot of foul balls was actually a good sign; if my stuff wasn’t there, a lot of those balls would have kept fair [instead of being fouled off]."
Matsuzaka's day was made somewhat more comfortable by the fact his team jumped all over Baltimore with three runs in the first inning, one in the second, two in the third, and one more in the fourth for an early 7-0 lead.
"Often when we get an early lead I’m told to really go after their hitters," the Red Sox starter said. “With the lead that we had today, I wanted to go deeper into the game. But I think for me, I can pitch better when the score is a little bit tighter.
"For me, my team getting me a lot of runs doesn’t necessarily allow me to relax."
There was also one thing Matsuzaka wanted to make clear about what awaits: He isn't settling for just what has been delivered in the past two starts.
COULD THEY ACTUALLY PULL IT OFF?
With the Red Sox' win, the Sox find themselves eight games ahead of the Texas Rangers in the wild card race and five games behind New York in the race for first place in the American League East.
So, with four games against the struggling Royals staring the Red Sox in the face, and then a crack at three games with the Yanks in New York over the weekend, could the Sox actually catch New York by regular season's end? David Ortiz thinks so.
"Why not?" said the Red Sox slugger after his team's sweep of the Orioles.
The obstacles keep on coming for the Yankees, who leave Seattle to play the Angels in Anaheim for three games before returning home for the showdown with the Red Sox. Following the series with Boston, New York gets its crack at Kansas City for three in the Bronx before closing out the regular season with a three-game set in St. Petersburg against the Rays.
The Red Sox, who have now won 11 of 13, close out their regular season with three games against Toronto and four against the Indians, all at Fenway Park.
Asked if he thought the Sox were playing their best baseball of the season, Ortiz simply said, "Look at the numbers, they will tell you."
In the last two weeks, the Red Sox have scored more runs than any team in baseball other than the Royals (Who knew?), with the second-best team batting average (.315, behind the Yankees' .325), and the top slugging percentage (.502) and on-base percentage (.384).
During that span, Red Sox pitchers have compiled a 2.53 ERA (second-best in the majors).
GREEN HEADED BACK TO BOSTON
Nick Green tried it again Sunday. It still didn't take.
Much like many of the pregames over the last week, Green picked up a bat, attempted to get down in his stance, and almost fell over. The "dead" right leg he has experienced since waking up last Monday still isn't well enough to play, and because of it Green is heading back to Boston Monday to have it checked out.
"It's tough because I have no idea," the infielder told WEEI.com. "I feel better every day, but I still don't know why it's doing what it's doing. Hopefully I'll know more tomorrow."
The initial diagnosis of Green's ailment was simply fatigue, but with the improvement still not sufficient to actually participate in a game, both the player and the team thought it was time to attempt to find a solution to the problem.
"It feels better every game, but baseball activities are different than just walking around," he said. "But it's been better walking. I don't know what they're going to say is wrong with it, but it shouldn't be anything serious because otherwise I would be hurting."
Green looks back at his at-bat on Sept. 16, in which he drew a bases-loaded walk on a 3-2 pitch to tie the game with two outs in the ninth inning, with amazement. Considering the leg has improved since that moment against the Angels — yet he still can't stay in a stance for more than a few seconds — the fact that he could stand up, never mind swing (and even foul balls off) is eye-opening.
"Everybody thought I had twisted my ankle when I got to first, but I just couldn't even stand up because of my leg," Green said. "There was no way I could have gotten a hit."
With the Red Sox' magic number now at seven after Sunday's 9-3 victory over the Orioles at Camden Yards and the Rangers' 10-5 loss to the Angels, Green knows it's a race against the clock to get his health back, both because there most likely will be at-bats to be had with the regulars garnering rest, and there will be decisions regarding playoff rosters looming.
"I don't want to miss any games, but if I could play I would play," Green said. "I can't squat down without falling down. Hopefully it won't be too long. I want to get back."
THIS IS GETTING RIDICULOUS
After Sunday's rout, the Red Sox finish this season 16-2 against the Orioles, having scored 130 runs to Baltimore's 68.
Since 2005, the Red Sox are 64-25 against the Orioles, having outscored Baltimore, 538-367.