FORT MYERS, Fla. — David Ortiz was in no mood to chat after the worst game of his worst season with Boston.
The struggling slugger had just gone 0 for 7 and stranded 12 runners in a 5-4 loss to the Los Angeles Angels last May 14. His batting average dropped from .220 to .208. His home run total remained at zero.
“Sorry, guys. I don’t feel like talking today,” the Red Sox designated hitter told reporters. “Just put down, ‘Papi stinks.”’
Fast forward to Monday, Ortiz’s first day at spring training.
Just put down, Papi smiles.
Ortiz was his usual amiable self — laughing and joking — and determined to leave his horrible 2009 start far behind.
“I had a nightmare for two months and even after you wake up, you still feel like you’re in a nightmare,” he said, “but that’s not my point right now. My point is, move on, I guess. The last four months of the season changed people’s minds and that’s all I care about.”
From the start of the season through June 5, the star who drove in 148 runs in 2005, hit 54 homers in 2006 and batted .332 in 2007 appeared lost at the plate. During that stretch, he hit .188 with one homer and 21 RBIs in 49 games.
Then things got worse. In July, The New York Times reported that Ortiz’s name was on a list of alleged drug users circulated by the federal government. Ortiz said he never knowingly used steroids and that over-the-counter supplements and vitamins likely caused him to land on the list.
“I think people gave up on me too early, too fast, start talking about age, all that kind of stuff,” the 34-year-old Ortiz said. “You listen to it for a minute. These are the same people that were clapping for you a year before.”
Red Sox manager Terry Francona stuck by him.
He dropped Ortiz from the No. 3 spot in the order, but kept him in the lineup — and his belief paid off. From June 6 through the end of the regular season, Ortiz led the AL with 27 homers, tied for the league lead with 78 RBIs and batted .266.
“He was going through stuff he had never gone through before and he gathered himself enough to be a potent bat in our lineup,” Francona said. “That’s why we were patient with him. We needed that. If we run away from David at the end of May, we would have missed what we did.”
Ortiz finished at .238, the lowest average in his seven seasons with Boston, but hit 28 homers with 99 RBIs.
A turning point came after that horrible game against the Angels.
Francona benched Ortiz the next three games. Then, in his second game back, Ortiz hit his first homer, breaking a career-long streak of 149 at-bats without a home run.
“I thought what was best for the team was to be patient with David,” Francona said. “I don’t think he always liked the message I had for him last year but, at the same time, I thought we were there for him.”
Ortiz said Monday that he had an inkling he might get off to a tough start last year because he had to get ready in a hurry for the World Baseball Classic in March and didn’t have his usual spring training. He also had to deal with his father’s serious illness.
Besides, the first two months of the season usually aren’t his best. For his career, he is hitting .264 in April, .276 in May, .307 in June and .314 in July.
On Monday, he was in good spirits.
When told that he looked to be in good shape, he responded with a laugh and said, “You ought to see me naked.”
A strong season by Ortiz is more important now that Jason Bay, who led the team with 36 homers last year, is with the New York Mets and Mike Lowell, who hit 17, is a backup and a prime candidate to be traded once his surgically repaired thumb heals.
“Everybody knows what I’m capable to do. People struggle. Sometimes people know how to bounce back,” Ortiz said. “So I’m very excited about this season.”
He doesn’t feel differently because he’s entering the last guaranteed year of a contract that includes a club option for 2011, he said. He believes he can be motivated by those who gave up on him.
And the return of his power in the final four months last season gives him confidence that he can hit as well as he ever has.
“At the end of the season when I (sat) down in my house, I was proud of myself,” Ortiz said. “It was because there are not too many people that know how to bounce back from that hole I walked into the first two months.”