Nothing seemed to have changed. There was the big slugger, always wearing his trademark smile before and after the games, still smacking the gloves together in the batter's box. But appearances can be deceptive, and the 33-year-old DH had virtually no production through the season's first two months.
He hit his first home run of the season on May 20 in his 164th plate appearance of the year. Red Sox fans at Fenway wouldn't sit until Ortiz gave them a curtain call, while Red Sox fans across the country breathed a sigh of relief. Still, the slugger's struggles were far from finished, as Ortiz hit just .132 with 18 strikeouts in the following 13 games.
That put the Red Sox — and manager Terry Francona — in an almost impossible situation. Even with the .187 average in early June, how can you sit the most clutch hitter in team history in favor of Rocco Baldelli (.265 with two home runs, seven RBIs and one DL stint at that point)?
Francona didn't, and it paid dividends.
"He's OK," the manager said on ESPN's Pardon The Interruption on Friday. "He's in a good place. He's kind of bailed us out because we were kind of scuffling there without him for a while. There wasn't a replacement for him. You can
try to, but it doesn't work.
"So rather than run away from him, we tried
to give him some time to get himself back together and he's done a pretty damn good job."
A pretty good job begins to describe what Ortiz has done since June 6. Though he hasn't transformed back into his old self, but he's become a viable DH for the Red Sox as they head into October.
"He's closing in on 100 RBIs and he's got a chance to get 30 home runs," Francona said on PTI. "Think about that — where he was at the end of May — that's amazing that we're even talking about that."
He's made the turnaround slowly but steadily, batting .266 with 20 homers and 76 RBIs since June 6. He's bounced up and down the lineup and had his fair share of hot streaks and cold streaks, but as the Red Sox prepare for the postseason, Ortiz is no longer the "automatic out" that he looked to be in the early part of the season.
Though baseball is an intricate game, especially for a DH that spends much of his time analyzing video in the clubhouse, Ortiz said that he got his season back on track by going back to basics.
"Just play like it's Little League," he told the New York Daily News last week in the Bronx. "I'm serious about it. One day I wake up and was like, 'OK, I guess I have nothing to lose any more. I am way behind what I am normally used to.' When I go to the field today, I'm just going to act like I'm in Little League. When you're in Little League you don't do [anything], just go and play baseball.
"At this level it's different. You come in, get your work in, get prepared. I guess I was more worried about that than basically the ballgame. I wanted to get myself so ready that when the game comes, there's nothing there. I got tired."
The struggles had many critics questioning Ortiz's age. That's something that clearly bothered him.
"With the numbers I already have this year, for those guys that were checking on my age, I think they can zip their mouths," Ortiz told the Daily News. "People always start looking for excuses and thinking the wrong direction when you struggle a little bit. At the end of the day, it's a sorry analysis."
Smack dab in the middle of an up-and-down season for Ortiz came the New York Times report that said he was on "The List" from 2003 of players who tested positive for banned substances. He took a hit nationally and locally, and he batted just .171 from the time the story was released on July 30 to the time he addressed the issue in New York on Aug. 9. He started to come around through Aug. 26, when he once again smashed a walk-off home run into the seats at Fenway, giving everyone a glimpse of the Ortiz of old.
Fortunately for the Red Sox, the distractions appear to be in the rear-view mirror. Though it'd be nearly impossible for Ortiz — or anyone, for that matter — to recreate the heroics of 2004, the Red Sox know they can count on Ortiz in crunch time.
He's not the MVP of this team, but he doesn't have to be anymore. He's already been a difference-maker this season. Next week, he'll be right back at home in October, where he's batted .327 with 10 homers and 35 RBIs since 2004. Ortiz can be a monster in the playoffs, and the Angels know that firsthand. If he can imitate that monster, it could mean a long playoff run for the Red Sox.
To steal a line from Francona, wouldn't that be amazing?