By Joe Haggerty
BOSTON -- David Ortiz and Terry Francona say they aren't worried.
But should they be?
Ortiz is 0-for-7 with a walk to start the 2010 season and is looking like the "bad" Big Papi. He's missed, or rolled over on, a couple of hittable fastballs in key spots and hasn't looked ready to much damage at the dish.
One such spot was the eighth inning Tuesday night. Ortiz was at bat with Kevin Youkilis on second, no one out, and the Red Sox trailing, 5-4. A tough left-hander, Damaso Marte, was on the mound -- Ortiz is 2-for-14 with four strikeouts lifetime against him -- but Francona let Big Papi hit while Mike Lowell sat on the bench.
Ortiz flat-out missed a good fastball and stroked a lazy fly ball to center field for the first out of the inning. Adrian Beltre and J.D. Drew followed with strikeouts at the hands of fist-pumping Joba Chamberlain, and that was it for Sox against the New York bullpen.
Francona said he's looking "big picture" and didn't even toss around the idea of pinch-hitting Lowell. Ortiz, however, seemed more focused on the here-and-now than the big picture.
When asked how he felt at the plate, Ortiz was short and to the point.
"I'll be fine," he said. "Of course. I wouldn't be here [if I didn't think I was about to break out]. It's not time to start worrying about that [expletive]. Not yet."
But Ortiz was pressed a bit, and asked if he thought it was fair people might automatically assume he's destined for the same kind of two-month slump to begin this season as he suffered last summer.
That's when the steam started coming out of Big Papi's ears.
"Look, Dawg, I'm not talking. Let me finish," said an animated Ortiz as he got dressed at his locker following the loss. "You guys just wait until [expletive] happens and then you guys talk [expletive].
"Two [expletive] games already and you mother [expletives] are going crazy. What's up with that, man. [Expletive]. There's 160 games left. Ain't that [an expletive]."
Lowell wasn't as animated, but seemed every bit as peeved that he wasn't called on in that situation.
"I don't want to get into it," he said Lowell to WBZ's intrepid Jonny Miller. "Tito's office is over there." Lowell then walked out of the clubhouse.
But then again that's pretty much all the answer one should need. It's no Sherlock Holmes mystery deducing whether a gritty competitor like Lowell wanted to walk up there in the eighth inning and face Marte with the tying run in scoring position.
When Ortiz returned to the Sox dugout and angrily jammed his helmet back into the cubby hole after his lazy fly ball to center, it didn't appear the image of an ultra-confident slugger just getting his bearings. It looked like a player fighting forces much bigger than a two-game slump to start the season.
It didn't appear like the Big Papi of old on the verge of busting out after two games. It instead played out like a hitter afraid he's headed for another mess of a first half after struggling through the first two months of last season.
Or a baseball player afraid that Father Time might just be passing him by though his team desperately needs him to be a "force" in the middle of their order.
That was the gamble Sox general manager Theo Epstein made when the team let Jason Bay walk in free agency and recruited a series of ultimate defensive players that made run prevention a way of life in Boston.
Logically it makes all the sense in the world Ortiz and the Sox aren't panicked, and that – even if they were – Francona is going to write Ortiz's name in the lineup card Wednesday night against left-hander Andy Pettitte. Lowell is, after all, a .345 career hitter against Pettitte in 29 career at-bats, and the righty swinger did hit over .300 against left-handed pitching last season.
Despite all that it would be very surprising if the Sox skipper banged a U-turn just three games into the season with an important player so key to Boston's fortunes. But, then again, this is also the manager that pushed Jonathan Papelbon into the closer's role during the 2006 season with Keith Foulke still actively in the mix.
The decision to make a move can be bold and merciless if the Sox decide it's the right one for the team.
At least in Pettitte's case, Ortiz has statistics on his side of the argument. Big Papi is a .367 lifetime hitter against the Yanks' southpaw with a home run and 10 RBI in 49 career at bats. Big Papi also holds the manager in his corner even if the second-guessers are out and wondering why Lowell didn't step up to replace Ortiz in a critical spot during last night's defeat.
"Two games, if guys go 0-for-4 or 3-for-4, it's not going to make or break the season. It would be nice to get him on track, though," said Francona. "With two games into the season, I don't think we need to start [pinch-hitting], not because I don't think [Lowell] couldn't do it, but just because I think the big picture needs to be remembered."
Ortiz is still a valued part of the big picture after two games of struggle, but it begs the question "How Long?" when the Sox hold another solution like Lowell in their back pocket.
Joe Haggerty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Joe on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HackswithHaggs