After five games in the current World Series, David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox is batting .733. Not the Little League World Series. The World Series.
You know, the Fall Classic: Don Larsen’s perfect game. Kirk Gibson’s home run. Bill Buckner’s— uh, we’ll come back to that.
Hitters just don’t bat .733 over the course of a series, whether it be the world championship or a doubleheader with the Houston Astros. And yet the six-foot-four, 250-pound Ortiz, whom everyone affectionately refers to as “Big Papi,” has run afoul of the law of (batting) averages in the past week.
The 37-year-old slugger has 11 hits in 15 at-bats and has also drawn four walks in staking the Red Sox to a 3-2 advantage (Game 6 is tonight in Fenway Park). That .733 is the highest batting average in a single World Series of anyone with at least 16 plate appearances. The next best batting average, more than 100 points lower at .625, belongs to someone whose name might you may know: Babe Ruth, who posted that number in 1928 for the New York Yankees in a four-game sweep of the Cardinals.
Additionally, during a stretch from Game 3 through Game 5 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Big Papi reached base safely in nine consecutive plate appearances. That tied a World Series record.
Nor is Cardinal pitching to blame. Ortiz’s teammates are batting an abysmal .151 against the Cards. The Red Sox as a team have struck out 50 times in this World Series, an average of 10 whiffs per game. Ortiz has yet to strike out once.
And, lest we forget, Ortiz has two home runs in this Series,and would have three if the Cardinals’ Carlos Beltran hadn’t robbed him of a grand slam in his first at-bat of Game 1.
“I’ve done it 20 times this year,” said Big Papi, over-swinging at least metaphorically, when asked if he had ever experienced such a stretch. “I was born for this.”
With his imposing, ursine physique, the native of the Dominican Republic is a menacing figure with lumber in his paws. Ortiz crowds the plate as if he is saving a seat for someone at a bar, and his swing is so fearsome that the second-baseman ordinarily plays in short right field (this is also a product of the “Maddon Shift,” first employed against Ortiz by Tampa Bay Ray manager Joe Maddon, to exploit Ortiz’s tendency to pull the ball). When he steps into the batter’s box, David is Goliath.
Elsewhere, however, Ortiz is a teddy bear. His smile could light up Faneuil Hall and his passion is contagious. With the Sawx trailing 1-0 in Game 4 of a World Series in which they trailed two games to one, Ortiz called an impromptu meeting in the dugout between innings and gave his teammates a pep talk. “‘It took me [six] years to get back up to this stage, and we had better teams than what we have right now and we never made it,” Ortiz later recalled saying (perhaps editing out an expletive or two), “So take advantage of being here.’”
Two innings later, with two outs and nobody on, Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia hit a single. The Cardinals, determined not to allow Big Papi sting them, walked Goliath. The next batter, Johnny Gomes, crushed a three-run homer that swung the momentum of this World Series Boston’s way. It remains Gomes’ lone hit in 14 at-bats, but so what?
Reggie Jackson of the New York Yankees (and before that, the Oakland A’s) was fittingly dubbed Mr. October after leading those two franchises to four World Series titles in the 1970s, but that was last millennium. Ortiz is on the verge of leading the Red Sox, who before his arrival in 2003 had not won a World Series since 1918, to a third championship banner in the past 10 seasons.
Big Papi’s legacy in Boston has long been secure. In 2004 he hit a series-clinching two-run home run in the bottom of the 10th inning to erase the Anaheim Angels in the divisional series. In the American League Championship Series (ALCS) against Boston’s bitter rivals, the New York Yankees, Ortiz had game-winning walk-off hits on consecutive nights as Boston became the first team in Major League history to win a postseason series after trailing 3-0. In that 2004 World Series, also against the Cardinals, he hit a home run in his first at-bat.
One year later, a gleefully grateful franchise presented Big Papi with a plaque that declared him “the greatest clutch hitter in Boston Red Sox history.” And this was after just three seasons with the franchise, one that formerly employed arguably the greatest hitter ever, Ted Williams.
Eight seasons later, Big Papi, who has more hits than any designated hitter in Major League annals, hasn’t lost his clutch. In the ALCS the Sox, the most prolific run-scoring team in baseball this season, came within two outs of being no-hit at home in a 1-0 Game 1 loss at Fenway Park. In Game 2 they trailed 5-1 in the bottom of the eighth. Then Big Papi came to bat with the bases loaded and on the first pitch he saw swatted it into the Red Sox bullpen in right-center field.
(That hit will become part of baseball lore: Tiger right fielder Torii Hunter flipped over the wall as he chased the line drive, while Red Sox bullpen catcher Manny Martinez caught it on they fly without even leaving his crouch.)
And so we come to Game 6 of this World Series, a game fraught with memories, both joyful and torturous, for the denizens of New England. The last World Series Game 6 in which Boston partook was in 1986, when Bill Buckner let Mookie Wilson’s awkward roller squirt through his wicket. Before that, in 1975, Game 6 was the scene of Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk’s walk-off home run, a moment so iconic for Bostonians that native son Matt Damon devoted a scene to it in Good Will Hunting.
The Red Sox lost both those World Series. In fact, the last time Boston clinched a Fall Classic in Fenway Park was 95 years ago, in 1918, against the Chicago Cubs. They did not bestow a World Series Most Valuable Player award back then, but it might have gone to the Red Sox pitcher who won both his starts: Babe Ruth.
They do bestow an MVP now, and if the Red Sox win – perhaps even if they lose – there is no chance that anyone but Big Papi collects it. After all, he’s the first player to have a World Series at the plate that was beyond Ruthian.