07/24/08 7:13 PM ET
Ortiz set to return Friday vs. Yankees
DH expected to energize Red Sox and Fenway Park crowd
By Ian Browne / MLB.com
And that is why his return -- expected to be Friday night against the Yankees -- should be one of the most energized occasions Fenway Park has seen all season.
"Hopefully it will be just like a little charge of electricity for us," said Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon.
The big man with the big bat and infectious smile makes his return at a time that is so perfect, it almost seems scripted.
Here come the Yankees into Fenway for a three-game weekend series, and here returns Big Papi, who last appeared in manager Terry Francona's lineup the night of May 31, when he suffered a partially torn tendon sheath in his left wrist.
"I can't wait," said Ortiz on Wednesday in Portland, Maine, as he wrapped up a six-game Minor League rehab assignment. "I'm very excited."
Before the excitement, there was panic. How would the Red Sox fare without Ortiz?
Ortiz needed some time, and the Red Sox bought him some.
When Ortiz started his 53-day absence, the Red Sox were 34-24, and trailing by one game in the American League East.
Upon his return, they are in a virtual tie atop the division, meaning they actually gained ground while he was gone, though marginally. Without Ortiz, the Red Sox went a respectable 26-19.
"We're in a fighting position without [having] one of the two biggest keys in our lineup," said Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek. "He'll still extend our offense, whether or not he hits right away. He's got a very valuable presence in our lineup."
As general managers around baseball make their final push before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, Theo Epstein might be making the most powerful move of all by simply activating a player.
"It's like making a huge trade at the deadline," said Red Sox right fielder J.D. Drew. "It's David Ortiz -- you're not going to take that for granted. His impact will be immediate. David is the key to our lineup. To lose him for a while was not the easiest thing, but it will definitely be nice to have him back."
Drew was one of the players who stepped up most in Ortiz's absence. Now, Francona has options.
For instance, with leadoff man Jacoby Ellsbury struggling, Francona has the flexibility -- if he so desires -- of going with a 1-2 punch of Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis in front of Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. Mike Lowell and Drew could hit fifth and sixth in either order, followed by Jed Lowrie, Jason Varitek and Ellsbury.
With Ortiz out, Francona was hamstrung on moves he could make, even when players were struggling.
Aside from excitement, the other sentiment that seemed to be expressed by most Sox players regarding the return of Ortiz is that they don't need him to be Superman.
"We just want David to be David, which is a great player," said Lowell. "I don't think he needs to feel like he needs to catch up and put numbers up. For me, you can start at zero and from this point out, just play to what he's capable of doing. I don't think he has to do anything else. He doesn't need to. He's too good."
When Joba Chamberlain takes the ball for the Yankees on Friday night, he will know Ortiz is standing 60 feet and six inches away, rusty or not.
"He can still change a game with one swing," Chamberlain said. "You've got to be really good with your pitches, and selective, and understand in a situation where you need to get a ground ball, you may walk him because it's a situation where you can't be too good with him."
After getting through the daily grind without Ortiz, the Red Sox are grateful not to have to do it any longer.
"Getting him back is going to be huge. His personality, his presence in the lineup -- he changes the game just being in the lineup," said Pedroia. "We've tried to weather the storm long enough. It's time to get David back and get ready for our final stretch run."
To clear a roster spot for Ortiz, the Red Sox on Thursday optioned outfielder Brandon Moss to Triple-A Pawtucket.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.