Saturday, August 05, 2006

Papi Can Lead - The Question Is, Can You Boys Follow?

Watching David Ortiz play the game of baseball, I think I know what it was like to watch Ted Williams in 1941, Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 and Jim Rice in 1978. Those three are possibly the most dominant offensive seasons by Red Sox hitters in the past seventy years, the defining campaigns in careers that carried Williams and Yaz to the Hall of Fame and Rice right up to the front door.

Ortiz' 2006 has been, to this point, on a par with any of those seasons. As the calendar flips over to August, he is on a pace that would not only lead him past the Sox single season homerun record (Jimmie Foxx's 50 in 1938) but close to Roger Maris' American League mark of 61, which somehow withstood the massive homerun barrage of the late 1990s and early 2000s. In addition, he could become just the third major leaguer since 1938 to drive in more than 160 runs in a season.

Despite the level of dominance associated with all three of the above mentioned seasons - Williams' .406 average, Yaz's Triple Crown, Rice's 406 total bases - and the fact that Ortiz is statistically on a par with any of them, Big Papi has a chance to take it a step further, to a place that few players in any sport have reached. He has a chance to not only turn in an exceptional season, but to carry his team to victory while doing so.

In recent weeks, the Red Sox have shifted from division favorites to a team that is barely hanging on. Several formerly steady contributors (including Jason Varitek, Trot Nixon, Keith Foulke, Matt Clement and Tim Wakefield) are currently on the disabled list. The pitching staff in particular is in tough shape, consisting of one reliable starter (Curt Schilling), one starter who has shown flashes of brilliance (Josh Beckett), a lights out closer (Jonathan Papelbon) and an uninspiring combination of youngsters and veterans who are doing their best to keep the ship afloat.

With the team in danger of sinking and the Yankees only getting stronger, acquiring Cory Lidle and Bobby Abreu and expecting Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui back at some point, the Red Sox needed something to go their way in the days following the trade deadline and Varitek's knee injury. They received it in the form of Big Papi's bat, which delivered two game winning hits in three days earlier this week against the Angels and Indians before helping vanquish the Devil Rays last night with two mammoth solo homeruns. It appears that Ortiz plans to pick his teammates up, place them on his broad shoulders and carry them for as long as he possibly can. It is a role that suits few, requiring the mental toughness to raise individual level of play to make up for team shortcomings.

Who knows how long Ortiz will help carry his teammates. Schilling rediscovered the ability to take his game up a notch tonight, allowing Papi the opportunity to step in and be the hero, and Mark Loretta contributed a walk-off hit of his own against Cleveland on Wednesday night, but there are still question marks that need to be addressed - can Beckett avoid the long ball, can Javy Lopez still contribute as a starting catcher, will Craig Hansen emerge as a lockdown middle reliever? Until those areas are resolved - perhaps I should say if those areas are resolved - I for one am glad that Ortiz has shown the willingness to shoulder the load and lead the team in the right direction.