Slump has plagued David Ortiz this season

CLEVELAND – Strolling down the concourse toward the indoor batting cages inside Progressive Field, David Ortiz was approached by a star-struck Cleveland Indians’ employee.

“Excuse me,” the worker said, offering his hand toward Boston’s sizable slugger. “You look a lot bigger in person than you do on TV.”

Ortiz smiled.

“I guess it depends on how big that TV is,” he cracked.

Right now, he’s Not So Big Papi.

Ortiz, with the bigger-than-life persona and big swing, is in the worst slump of his pro career. After getting two soft singles as the Red Sox rallied to beat the Indians 6-4 on Monday night, Ortiz is batting .105 (5-for-48) with one homer and three RBIs.

He entered the two-game series batting .070 and in an 0-for-17 slide, a tailspin that prompted manager Terry Francona to do the unthinkable – bench his designated hitter on Sunday night in a nationally televised home game against the New York Yankees.

Francona felt Ortiz needed a mental break to free his mind and unleash his bat.

Perhaps as troubling as Ortiz’s groundouts and popups was that he wasn’t his fun-loving self while off the field. Always upbeat, Ortiz wasn’t cracking jokes or clowning around. He wasn’t the same Big Papi, one of the ring leaders for the defending World Series champions.

Some wondered if Ortiz himself had been buried by a Red Sox-loving construction worker under the new Yankee Stadium.

Ortiz was pressing – big time.

“It’s hard for him to be his normal jovial self because he feels like he’s letting us down,” Boston hitting coach Dave Magadan said. “But it’s not that at all. We realize it takes all 25 guys to contribute. We can’t rely on him all the time.”

Ortiz has dismissed his early season slump, tying it to offseason arthroscopic surgery on his right knee.

He had damaged cartilage removed after the Red Sox swept the Colorado Rockies to win their second World Series title in four years.

But Ortiz is 32, not 22. Although he doesn’t play in the field, baseball’s top home run hitter since 2004 isn’t getting any younger.

Magadan said Ortiz’s biggest problem has been his impatience at the plate. He’s swinging at pitches he usually takes, and he’s taking pitches he normally rips into the outfield gaps for doubles. Beyond that, Ortiz was reminded of his slump every time he walked out of the dugout.

It’s tough enough to play in Boston’s fish bowl, where every game is treated by the media and Red Sox Nation as a season unto itself. But Ortiz’s struggles were being documented on a pitch-by-pitch basis.

“Guys go up to bat and they see their statistics up there everyday, and they are updated after every at-bat,” said Magadan, a .288 career hitter in 16 major league seasons. “It’s tough. When I played, we could just not look at the stats. Very few parks put up your stats on the scoreboard. Now, it’s hard to run away from it.”

Because of his high profile, Ortiz’s slump was given more attention than if he were say, a middle infielder for Toronto. And as far as Magadan is concerned, it’s way too early to make assumptions or accurate evaluations.

“There are some guys who have gotten a lot of hits in their first 40 at-bats and people are like, ‘Oh, he’s off to a good start,'” Magadan said. “A start is 150 at-bats. When you’re an everyday player, you don’t want to go 3-for-40. But it’s not a big deal when you’re two good games from turning it completely around. To me, there’s not enough at-bats to have any gauge right now.”

Indians manager Eric Wedge rolled his eyes when he was asked about Ortiz’s hitting funk.

“He’s gonna be fine,” Wedge said. “I knew I was going to have to talk about him, whether I wanted to or not. He’s going to be A-OK. They have nothing to worry about over there with him. Everything is magnified at the start of the season. He may have a little streak like this in the middle of the year and it is noticed, but not as much.”

Francona was willing to give his DH more time to rest. But Ortiz sent his manager a text message early Monday saying he was ready to go.

In his first at-bat Monday, Ortiz dropped a single into left against Jake Westbrook. To the Red Sox, it was as if he had crushed a line drive into the Green Monster.

“Our whole dugout was on the top step,” Francona said. “Don’t think that they don’t care about him. It was a big deal to those guys. Little things like that are big things to us, they mean a lot. Every pitcher on our staff was on the top step blowing on it to make sure it dropped in.”

With the Indians overplaying Ortiz to the right side with two outs in the ninth, he blooped a single into left. One pitch later, Manny Ramirez hit a two-run homer off closer Joe Borowski into the left-field seats. In the seventh inning, Ortiz and Ramirez had both struck out with two runners on.

But when it mattered most, Boston’s big bats came through: an unlikely bloop and a familiar blast.

Ramirez, who may know Ortiz best, isn’t worried about his good friend’s tough start.

“He’ll be fine,” Ramirez said. “If he doesn’t hit, I’ll hit for him.”