BOSTON — This month, David Ortiz has probably become the first player in history to get over the hump and into the Hall of Fame by the margin of his spectacular postseason play.
If the Boston Red Sox complete their third World Series triumph in the past 10 seasons, all with Big Papi as a central offensive engine, and Ortiz continues to hold the highest career batting average in World Series history, currently an insane .465 in ’04, ’07 and ’13 combined, we can probably remove the word “probably.”
In the past week, hitting .733 in this series despite being robbed of a grand slam in Game 1 by a great catch, Ortiz has, in all likelihood, dispelled the last Cooperstown doubts anyway. Stat students may debate whether there’s any such thing as a “clutch hitter,” but don’t try to sell that to the St. Louis Cardinals. After Ortiz finally made an out on Monday, on a vicious deep line drive to center, ace Adam Wainwright turned and made a gesture of admiration as if to say, “So, you can make an out.”
The Hall of Fame is full of players who have starred in the postseason, including Mr. October, Reggie Jackson. But, at the moment, Ortiz occupies a curious “tweener” status in the game’s pantheon. He has 431 homers and turns 38 in November. With normal erosion with age, he may never quite reach the stat thresholds usually associated with Cooperstown. Because he’ll be measured, at least in part, against the norms of a power-crazed era, he may resemble players like Fred McGriff, who has more homers and RBI than Ortiz but will probably never make the Hall.
Big Papi, however, seems determined to batter his way from “almost” to “in,” thanks to October. And many players here seem to sense his quest.
“My man, here he is, the guy I don’t think has gotten out this series. Knock on wood,” said the southpaw. “You don’t get to play with many Hall of Famers, and I’d like to call him a Hall of Famer after the pleasure of playing with him the last eight years and hopefully a couple more.”
“Thanks, brother,” said Ortiz in a baritone worthy of his 1.267 slugging percentage over the last five games.
Another Boston stalwart, David Ross, interrupted the first and likely only World Series press conference of his life to say, “Speaking of clutch hitting with David Ortiz — what planet is that guy from?”
That’s what everybody says almost every October since Ortiz arrived in Boston in 2003. What he’s doing this postseason, with a two-homer game against the Rays in the Division Series, a crucial ALCS-turning grand slam against Detroit and now a total devastation of the Cards, has become an almost predictable encore.
In the most memorable playoff series in baseball history, Ortiz hit .387 and drove in 11 runs against the Yankees in ’04 as Boston became the only team to recover from a three-games-to-none deficit. That was after he’d hit .545 against the Angels to get the Red Sox into that ALCS. In the Red Sox’ two Series wins since ’18, he’s hit .308 and .333 with eight RBI in eight games. He once hit .714 in a Division Series — in ’07 against the Angels.
Few star hitters actually perform better over extended postseason exposure because they face only the best pitchers from the best opposing teams and do so under chilly autumn conditions that neutralize some of a batter’s power. But Ortiz blows away this rule of thumb. In 81 postseason games, exactly half of a normal season, he’s hit 17 homers, driven in 60 runs, had 40 extra-base hits and batted .296, better than his career mark of .292. His postseason on-base percentage and slugging averages also top his regular season norms, .403 to .381 and .554 to .549.
This October, in three playoff series combined, he’s hitting .360, slugging .720, has five homers and 13 RBI in 15 games and hit the grand slam that reversed the momentum of the AL Championship Series. Any more questions?
“The Cardinals have tried a lot [of different pitching approaches],” said Ross, a catcher who says he’s been studying Yadier Molina’s pitch sequences to Ortiz. “David’s just . . . he’s David Ortiz. That says enough. The guy is a postseason stud and a stud in general. That’s why we call him ‘Cooperstown,’ because he does Hall of Fame stuff.”
Someday a wonderful October pitcher, the Yankees’ Andy Pettitte, may join Ortiz as a Cooperstown-with-help-from-the-playoffs Hall of Famer.
Ortiz does more than hit — or, rather, designate hit, which would normally be a huge factor working against his Hall candidacy, just as it has doomed Edgar Martinez.
In the last three games in St. Louis, he moved back to his old first base spot and never had a misstep. When the Red Sox were flat in Game 4, and trailing in the series two-games-to-one, Ortiz called a team meeting in the dugout after the fifth inning for an in-plain-view pep talk. The Sox immediately scored three runs to win, 4-2, with a Jonny Gomes homer following an Ortiz walk.
“We were like 24 kids in kindergarten when the teacher starts to talk,” Gomes said.
So, add October leadership to the résumé. “This guy right here is the epitome of a superstar and a good teammate,” Lester said. “I don’t think you could ever ask more out of an individual than what he has done on and off the field. He’s got a heart of gold.”
Ortiz also understands that a three-games-to-two lead should not induce overconfidence. “Our biggest challenge,” he said, “is to come back on Wednesday and continue playing the way we have.”
For Ortiz, the Cards have presented a tough task. “They have great pitching staff,” he said. “If you try to look for everything they throw, you’re definitely not going to hit anything.”
Then how can Ortiz go 11 for 15 and, yes, take note of that barely missed grand slam, too? Has he ever been this hot before, he was asked?
“I did it like 20 times this season,” Ortiz said, matter-of-factly
“That pretty much sums it up,” Lester added.
But Ortiz actually summed his feats, spread across 17 different postseason series — all but two with the Red Sox.
“I was born for this,” Ortiz said.
And for Cooperstown, too.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.