Boston's Ortiz gains popularity

Posted: Sunday, October 10, 2004

BOSTON -- David Ortiz has yet to steal a base for the Red Sox. He's unlikely to score from first on anything but a homer. For him to triple, something pretty awful has to happen to at least two outfielders.

But when the lumbering slugger -- the potential tiebreaking run -- singled in the eighth inning of Game 3 of the AL division series against Anaheim, Boston manager Terry Francona didn't give much thought to lifting him for a pinch-runner.

''Those are our big boys,'' Francona said, explaining his strategy for both Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. ''We'll take a shot and leave them in the game.''

Ortiz was stranded on second in the eighth, the Red Sox didn't score and the game went into extra innings. But the strategy paid off when Ortiz hit the game-winning homer in the 10th to give Boston an 8-6 victory and put the Red Sox in the AL championship series for the second consecutive year.

''That's why we don't take him out,'' Francona said. ''If you take his bat out for a pinch-runner, not only do you lose his bat but it's going to make it a heck of a lot tougher on Manny coming around next time, too.''

Ortiz has been making things easier for Ramirez all season. Batting third and fourth in the Red Sox order, Ramirez and Ortiz each topped 40 homers, a .300 average and 100 RBIs -- the first AL teammates to do so since Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth.

And they didn't let up when the playoffs started. Ramirez was 5-for-13 with seven RBIs in the ALDS against the Angels and Ortiz went 4-for-6 in the clincher on Friday night to finish the three-game sweep with a .545 average, four runs and four RBIs.

Ortiz doubled and scored in the third inning, then doubled in a run in the fourth as the Red Sox took an early 6-1 lead and appeared headed to an easy victory. But after Mike Timlin gave up a tying grand slam to Vladimir Guerrero in the seventh, the Red Sox needed help from Ortiz again.

He didn't score after his third hit, but Ortiz didn't wait long in the 10th. On the first pitch from starter-turned-reliever Jarrod Washburn, Ortiz hit a towering homer over the Green Monster to move the Red Sox a step closer to their first title since 1918.

''Mike Timlin's picked us up all year,'' Ortiz said. ''I said, 'I've got your back.' When I hit the home run, he gave me a kiss.''

It's that attitude that has made him one of the most popular players in the Red Sox clubhouse.

''But as good of a guy as he is,'' Francona said, ''I'll take those 140 RBIs. That's what makes him so lovable. He's a tremendous person, but his bat, that's what helps us win more games.''

And he comes at a price that has made him one of Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein's shrewdest signings.

After six seasons in Minnesota, where Ortiz helped spark the Twins' resurgence from likely candidate for contraction to AL Central contender, the Twins decided they couldn't afford him. They also had defensive star Doug Mientkiewicz to play first, so they let Ortiz go.

The Red Sox signed him as a free agent and brought him to compete for time at first base with Kevin Millar and Jeremy Giambi. Giambi was a bust -- partly due to injuries -- and Millar was a better first baseman, but the Red Sox haven't had any trouble finding playing time for Ortiz at designated hitter.

All he did last year was hit .288 with 31 homers, 39 doubles and 101 RBIs in 128 games, good enough to place fifth in the AL MVP voting. This year, he figures to finish in the top five of the MVP race again after hitting .301 with 41 homers (second in the league), 139 RBIs (second) and 47 doubles (third). And an incredible bargain, too.

Ortiz made just under $4.6 million this year and he re-upped with the Red Sox this spring for two years and $12.5 million; the three years combined don't add up to what either Ramirez or Pedro Martinez will make this year.

''You saw the potential. I think he had a terrific year in Minnesota, but then in the offseason I think he was kind of out there,'' Angels manager Mike Scioscia said after Ortiz knocked him out of the playoffs. ''Found a home here and he's been incredible, to say the least.''

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