10/10/09 1:30 AM ET
Like season, Papi looks to reverse fortunes
Following two-month slump, slugger went back to basics
By Ian Browne / MLB.com
Sure, Ortiz went 0-for-8 in the first two games of this best-of-five series, and the Red Sox are now on the brink of elimination, trailing the Angels, 2-0.
But things were a lot bleaker for Ortiz during a two-month slump back in April in May, when he looked thoroughly lost. Big Papi, as he is called throughout Red Sox Nation, bounced back from that to finish with 28 homers and 99 RBIs.
He will draw on that and isn't about to stop fighting now. The Red Sox will try to take on that same mentality.
"Well, you know, we are troopers," Ortiz said in the hours before Boston lost Game 2. "We just fight back. This series isn't over until it's over. We just know how to feel things out and fight back, you know? It's like I tell you guys always, it doesn't matter what we did in the past against these guys. They have a good team. We really need to focus on that and come out and play."
At first, it was a season to forget for Ortiz. Then, he made it one he could take pride in.
It was around late May or early June when Ortiz, mired in the worst slump of his career, tried to take to heart a message from his manager.
"Stop looking at your stats," Terry Francona told Big Papi, who had been defined by his gaudy numbers over the years.
Did Ortiz listen?
"No, I didn't," laughed Ortiz. "It's on the board every day. No way you're going to stop looking at it. But Terry's the one guy that he always makes sure that he gives you a little reminder about things. He knows it was hard for me to just not be able to do things like I normally do. But the good thing about the whole situation was that he was just trying to make me calm down."
So maybe Ortiz never did quite keep his eyes off the numbers, which for a while, seemed to illuminate as a dreadful reminder of how things were going.
But whether it was from the soothing words of his manager or the unshakable confidence from hitting coach Dave Magadan, Ortiz never did stop swinging. And eventually, it all came back to the point where Ortiz's numbers (28 homers, 99 RBIs) no longer tell the story of just how bad things were for a while.
Consider that when he arrived to Fenway Park on June 6, Big Papi was in a slump of epic proportions. How epic? In 191 at-bats, Ortiz was hitting .188 with one homer, 21 RBIs and a .288 slugging percentage.
No matter what he did, it didn't seem Ortiz would be able to salvage respectable numbers when it was all said and done. But something started to click that night of June 6, when he delivered a home run around Pesky's Pole against the Texas Rangers. From that day on, it was like Big Papi became Big Papi again. Over his final 350 at-bats of 2009, he smashed 27 homers and had 78 RBIs to go along with a .557 slugging percentage and a .266 batting average.
Back in the postseason, where Ortiz has done legendary things in the past, he is once again a force to be reckoned with, batting fifth in the Boston batting order.
"You know, this game isn't how you start," Ortiz said. "You've got to wait until the last day and then you can say whatever you want to say or criticize players or do whatever you want to do. You know, this is a long season, and things happen for a reason. I tell you, this might be one of the seasons that I learned the most about the game than ever. I'm the kind of guy that I take things with me and analyze it in the offseason, and go through it and try to get the best benefit out of it."
When it was all going bad, Ortiz's family and friends were flooding him with suggestions of how to snap out of it. As much as Papi appreciated how much people cared, he was getting overloaded with information and finally started making a point of turning off his cell phone.
From there, Ortiz went back to the basics with Magadan.
"He's the hitting coach," said Ortiz. "He just tried to keep his eyes on me you and make sure I went back to the bases, which I normally do, but sometimes it's hard for him to say things like that to a guy like me. But I pretty much agreed with a lot of things that he had to say. And it just all clicked at once."
MAN OF TWO SEASONS
|Category||Before 6/5||After 6/5|
Which adjustments were key?
"I think there were probably a few things," Francona said. "Balance at the plate. As a hitter, when you're in between, you're swinging at a ball because you're not seeing the ball good. The change of speed is affecting you. Once he started earning fastballs because he wasn't swinging at breaking balls in the dirt, there's a lot of things that kind of came together."
It was a gradual process that required patience from both Ortiz and the organization.
"If we knew the exact reasons, it probably would have come together quicker," Francona said. "It's just he endured a really tough two months. There was no way to get around it. It was difficult. But he worked hard, and we stayed patient. It ended up where in his last at-bat, if he fired in a hit, he would have had 100 RBIs. That's quite an accomplishment considering where he started."
Aside from the slump, Ortiz was blindsided at the end of July by a New York Times report that he was among the list of 104 players who tested positive during MLB's survey testing for performance enhancing drugs in 2003. With all that swirling around his mind that afternoon, Ortiz belted a game-winning home run against the Oakland Athletics.
For more than a week, Ortiz tried to gather information from the Players Association about what he tested positive for, only to come up empty. The tests results were sealed under a court order. On Aug. 8, Ortiz held a news conference in front of a packed audience at Yankee Stadium in which he stated emphatically he never took steroids. Ortiz said he was careless when it came to taking nutritional supplements.
After getting all of that off his chest, Ortiz snapped out of his second slump of the season (2-for-28) far earlier than the first one. It was a season in which, more than any other, Ortiz learned the art of resilience.
"I tell you, even now, I still don't know what happened the first two months," Ortiz said. "But one thing I tell you, I figured things out at one point. It wasn't even that I was trying to do something different, because I tried everything. I'm telling you, I tried everything. I was about to start hitting right-handed just to see if things changed."
Things never got that desperate. Ortiz is back to being a strong presence from the left side, the type that pitchers don't want to face with the game on the line.
"He had a trying season and a really trying first couple of months when he looked lost at the plate," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "There were times that there was reason for optimism, but there was a lot of times when there was nothing that you could grab onto aside from belief in the player and belief in the person. He's come through here."
With the Red Sox on the brink, Ortiz will try to come through again when his team needs him most.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.