Big Papi ends long homerless drought
Ortiz goes deep for first time since September 2008
BOSTON -- The much-dissected drought finally ended in the bottom of the fifth inning at Fenway Park on Wednesday night, when Red Sox slugger David Ortiz had his first Big Papi moment of 2009.
All the pressure Ortiz felt from not hitting a home run in his previous 149 at-bats came to a satisfying end when the left-handed hitter leaned into a 1-1 pitch from Blue Jays lefty Brett Cecil and placed it just over the wall at the 379-foot mark in center field.
It was a two-run blast for Ortiz, and a big shot of adrenaline for a packed house at Fenway.
The Red Sox won the game by a score of 8-3, but just about all the talk centered on the big man with the big swing.
"It was a big night for our team and everybody knows why," said Jason Varitek, the captain of the Red Sox.
When Ortiz returned to the dugout, his teammates suddenly sat down in unified silence. Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury thought the prank might have been Varitek's idea. Ortiz suspected Dustin Pedroia. Either way, it worked.
After Ortiz placed his helmet down, his teammates all mobbed him at once.
"My teammates are the best," said Ortiz. "It's something that we have built up around here, man. I look at their faces when I'm not doing good, and they look at me like, 'Hey, hang in there. We're right behind you.' I've got so much support from everyone here that I can't even break it down for you. That's how it is here. I'm the kind of guy that I never forget my teammates. I always try to help them one way or another, and everybody is the same way. That chemistry has been going around here for so long."
And once the Red Sox were done congratulating Ortiz, the slugger, touched by the long and loud ovation from the crowd, stepped out of the dugout for a curtain call.
"The fans, they've always been so supportive since I've been here," said Ortiz. "That's unbelievable. There's not too much I can say about it. I try to come every day and get it done for them."
Ortiz arrived in Boston in 2003 as a platoon player, and by the second half of that season, had emerged into a fearsome enough hitter to finish fifth in the American League's Most Valuable Player Award voting.
The next year, he turned into a superstar, producing three walk-off hits during the postseason, as the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years. In '05, Ortiz was again a wrecking machine, belting 47 homers, driving in 148 runs and finishing second to Alex Rodriguez in the MVP race. Then there was '06, when Big Papi set a team record with 54 homers.
In '07, Ortiz started slowly but finished strong, ripping 35 homers and coming up big again in October to fuel another World Series title.
But adversity started to kick in last year when Ortiz suffered a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist at the end of May and missed seven weeks. His wrist not fully healthy, Ortiz gave the Red Sox spotty production the rest of the way, finishing with 23 homers.
For the first time since 2003, he came into this season needing to prove something again. Namely, that he was healthy and that he could still produce at a high level. Perhaps the weight of those expectations wore Ortiz down.
Finally, on Wednesday night, the 33-year-old Ortiz could exhale after hitting his first homer in a regular-season game since Sept. 22, 2008. It was his first homer in a game that mattered since a three-run blast in Game 5 of last October's American League Championship Series. Two at-bats after his homer Wednesday, Ortiz ripped a double to left-center.
"I got that big old monkey off my back, you know?" Ortiz said. "You have to understand, sometimes, that's all it takes, to have a good at-bat and get a big hit and start clicking."
Ortiz came into the night hitting .203 with no homers and 15 RBIs.
"I wasn't really worried about homers as much as I was worried about getting my swing back, because I know when my swing is right there, homers are going to come, regardless," said Ortiz. "My pressing was from missing pitches that I normally hit or sometimes putting a good swing on it and still missing it. 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 seemed to hit rock bottom last Thursday in Anaheim, going 0-for-7 and tying a franchise record by leaving 12 men on base in a 12-inning loss.
Knowing the burden Ortiz was carrying, manager Terry Francona gave Ortiz all three games of the weekend series in Seattle off. Francona made it clear that he was not benching Ortiz, but merely giving him time to take a mental breather.
When Boston returned home Tuesday night, Ortiz went 0-for-3 with a walk and two strikeouts. The slugger began Wednesday's game in equally unspectacular fashion, grounding out to first and striking out on three pitches in his first two at-bats.
Finally, Ortiz got a good result.
"David will hit -- it's not if he can," Varitek said. "Everybody is pretty much human. You run across points in your life where things aren't necessarily easy. I think it's big that we had our fans get behind him. That was a pretty electric moment for David, and for us."
Though Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Jason Bay have become big cogs in the lineup, Ortiz is still a vital element to the success of the Red Sox.
"We need him to make it to the playoffs," said Red Sox shortstop Julio Lugo. "Everybody's happy that he got that home run, because everybody was talking about it and giving him more pressure. Now, hopefully he will relax. We're happy. We need him. He's a big part of our team."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.