- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Every pitch looks like an aspirin tablet these days to David Ortiz - if not an apparition. As for the bat he’s cocking behind his left ear, it might as well be a pick-up stick.

Not so long ago, the sight of Ortiz hovering over the plate, particularly in a clutch situation, would be enough to give any pitcher sweaty palms. Lately, though, he’s been hitting about one homer every equinox, and his slugging percentage (.299) has shrunk to where it’s visible only through the Hubble telescope. He’s like Roy Hobbs after Wonderboy broke. He needs somebody to stand up for him in the right-field bleachers - Glenn Close, anybody - and help him become Big Papi again.

Alas, Big Papi may not be coming back. A growing body of evidence certainly suggests as much. For starters, it’s no one thing that’s holding him back - it’s everything. Going into Monday’s game, he was batting .188 against righties, .207 against lefties, .212 at home, .174 on the road, .185 during the day, .200 at night, .183 in BP and .209 in soft toss. If he doesn’t turn it around pretty soon, you figure he’ll be the Red Sox’s designated sitter.

In fact, Terry Francona sat him on Memorial Day and had Mike Lowell DH for the Sox, sparing Ortiz from having to face southpaw Francisco Liriano. On Boston’s previous road trip, after an 0-for-7, 12-men-left-on horror show against the Angels, Papi was furloughed for the entire Seattle series - not that it did any good. Francona, ever loyal, is willing to try just about anything to get the big fella going again. Indeed, one Boston sports writer wonders whether “playing first base once in a while would take his mind off hitting.”

You look at Ortiz and you think of David Duval. Only in golf, it seems, do we see the kind of fluctuations in performance that we see in baseball. Call it the Here Today Gone Tomorrow Syndrome. Athletes in all sports have ups and downs, sure, but they don’t drop off the face of the earth the way they do in baseball and golf - the ultimate mind games.

Never mind Ortiz; look at Brad Lidge. Last year he was untouchable - 48 saves in 48 opportunities, postseason included, as the Phillies won the World Series. This year? Well, he’s already blown four of his 12 save chances and his ERA has more than quadrupled. Not that we haven’t seen this before from him. In 2006, after two spectacular seasons as the Astros’ closer, he suddenly stepped into a 1-5/5.28 ERA/eight blown saves sinkhole.

Of course, there’s often more volatility with the guys in the bullpen. When you put out fires for a living, you’re bound to get burned (unless, like Mariano Rivera, you’re made of asbestos). It’s a little more unusual, though, for a slugger who was compiling a Hall of Fame resume to - at the age of 32 - do a 180 and turn into Bob Uecker.

Unusual but not unprecedented. Orlando Cepeda won an MVP Award with the Cardinals in 1967, the year he turned 30, and proceeded to hit just .252 the next two seasons (averaging a mere 19 homers and 81 RBI). His story had a happy ending, though. After a trade to Atlanta he rediscovered his stroke, and he’s now ensconced in Cooperstown.

An even better parallel to Ortiz - one pointed out by my 18-year-old, baseball-on-the-brain son - is Ted Kluszewski, the muscular first baseman for the Reds in the ‘50s. Check out Kluszewski’s stats sometime. The arc of his career was amazingly similar to Big Papi’s. Consider:

From 1953 to ‘56 (ages 28 to 31, essentially), Big Klu averaged 42.8 homers, 116 RBI and batted .315. But in the five seasons after that, slowed mostly by the ravages of time, he managed only 34 homers in 1,095 at bats. He still batted in the high .200s, he just couldn’t put the ball in the seats anymore.

Now look at Ortiz’s averages from ages 28 to 31 (2004 to 2007): 44.3 homers, 135.3 RBI, .304 BA.

And look at his numbers since: 570 at bats, 24 homers (only one this season), .246 BA. He’s the Dominican Ted Kluszewski - so far, at least.

Maybe Big Papi, like Cepeda, will summon a second act. Maybe the wrist injury he suffered last year was worse than anyone realized - and chipped away at his confidence as well as his power. What’s unfortunate is that, in the current climate, his nosedive raises all kinds of uncomfortable questions. It’s hard not to wonder now whether his heroics with the Red Sox were real or Something Else. Nobody, after all, suspected Manny Ramirez, his former teammate, of using performance enhancers until - whoops - a test came back positive this year.

This much we do know: With Ortiz watching from the dugout Monday, his replacement went 4-for-5 and Boston beat the Twins 6-5. Make no mistake, the Sox miss Big Papi desperately; they just don’t miss the .195-hitting imposter who’s been wearing his uniform.

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