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Big Papi Ortiz Loses Hitting Hero Glory as Red Sox Face Yankees

David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox
David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox reacts after he struck out against the Tampa Bay Rays in Boston. Photographer: Elsa/Getty Images

Twenty-eight games into the season, Yankee-thumping Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz was hitting .171 with seven runs driven in. He strikes out almost once every three times he bats.

He’s had bad luck off the field, too. He was sued by seven-time Grammy Award winning rapper Jay-Z, who says Ortiz stole the name for his nightclub, Forty-Forty, from his upscale lounge.

It’s been a cold spring for Ortiz, a five-time All-Star who endeared himself to Red Sox fans by tormenting the New York Yankees. Big Papi, as Boston faithful call him, led the American League in runs batted in twice and home runs once, and has one of the most historic home runs in the franchise’s 110-year history. Through games of May 5, he has the worst batting average among Red Sox regulars, and at age 34, a return to his prime form is not likely, said former Toronto Blue Jays General Manager JP Ricciardi.

“When a player’s at the end of his career, he’s at the end of his career,” said Ricciardi, 50, now an ESPN analyst. “Ortiz is heading more toward the end than coming back.”

Ortiz, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound Dominican, became a fan favorite in Boston with his ready smile and clutch hitting, especially against the Yankees, who come to Fenway Park tonight. Ortiz hasn’t been much of a threat this season against New York: He has one hit in 11 at-bats.

The Red Sox, who have made the playoffs six of the past seven years, are struggling. Boston was in fourth place in the American League East, 6 1/2 games behind the first-place Tampa Bay Rays and 5 1/2 behind the second-place Yankees before yesterday’s games.

Save The Team

That’s putting even more pressure on Ortiz, once a keystone of the Boston offense, to produce, Ricciardi said.

“If you’re a month further into this, then, I think, at that point, all bets are off,” Ricciardi said.

Ortiz, a designated hitter making $13 million in the final year of his contract, has had a few shining moments. He went two for three including a home run two days ago against the Los Angeles Angels. The night before, he went 0 for 4, striking out twice and hitting into a double-play twice.

He was signed by Boston in 2003 after being released by the Minnesota Twins. The next year, he batted .301 with 41 home runs and 139 runs batted in, and Boston made the playoffs.

Win Over Yankees

With the Red Sox trailing the Yankees three games to none in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series that year, Ortiz hit a two-run game-winning homer in the 12th inning. He hit another home run in the next game to send it to extra innings and, eventually, another Boston victory. The Red Sox won the matchup, the only time that a Major League Baseball team came back to win a seven-game series after trailing three games to none.

Boston beat St. Louis in the World Series for its first title in 86 years.

In 2005, Ortiz had 47 homers and 148 RBI, and followed that up with a 54-homer, 137 RBI campaign the next year and helped the Red Sox win a second World Series in 2007 with a career-high .332 batting average and 35 homers.

In July, the New York Times reported that he was among 100 major-league players who tested positive for performance enhancing drugs in 2003. He denied using illegal substances and has never been cited for doping.

A key component of good hitting is bat speed, and Ortiz’s might have dropped.

He put 12 percent of fastballs thrown to him into play this season, according to Bloomberg Sports Baseball analytics. Last season he put 17 percent into play, hitting 23 of his 28 homers off of fastballs. This year, two of his four homers have come off fastballs.

‘Diminishing Skills’

“Diminishing skills, definitely,” said Dennis Eckersley, a Hall of Fame pitcher who now is a baseball analyst for Turner Broadcasting System Inc. “David Ortiz was one of the most frightening hitters in the game.”

Ortiz just shook his head and smiled when approached to talk about his hitting April 28 in Toronto.

He had a similar start last year, batting .146 in April and May. His bat woke up though, and he finished the year with a .238 average, 28 home runs and 99 runs batted in.

That may give the Red Sox pause if they think of releasing or trading him, said Eckersley, 55.

“They don’t want him to hurt them and go somewhere else,” he said.

Jay-Z Suit

Off the field, Ortiz was sued by Jay-Z on April 15 in Manhattan Federal Court. The rapper accused him of stealing the name of his 40/40 Club in New York’s Flatiron District. Ortiz opened a club named Forty-Forty in Santa Domingo, Dominican Republic.

Ortiz’s agent, Diego Bentz of Northbrook, Illinois-based SFX Baseball, didn’t return calls seeking comment.

On the field, Ortiz must simply overcome his anxiety to succeed, said one former teammate, Sean Casey, a three-time All-Star who finished his career at first base in Boston in 2008.

“If you’ve never been in a batter’s box in the big leagues, you don’t understand how mental it is,” said Casey, 35, an analyst for the MLB Network.

“When you’re struggling, especially in a place like Boston, you have to get into your own little world and start focusing on one pitch because it’s an intense place to play,” he said.

“Every night in Boston is Game Seven of the World Series.”

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