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David vs. Goliath Expectations

Even prior to the Red Sox’s nationally televised loss to rival New York Wednesday night, speculation surrounding slugger David Ortiz’s seemingly declining production had already begun surfacing in the media -- something that the struggling hitter didn’t take lightly while fielding questions from reporters following Tuesday night’s loss at Fenway Park.

After being reminded of last season’s well-documented slow, almost snail-paced start at the plate, Ortiz lashed out saying, "You guys wait 'til [expletive] happens, then you can talk [expletive]. Two [expletive] games, and already you [expletives] are going crazy. What's up with that, man? [Expletive]. [Expletive] 160 games left. That's a [expletive]. One of you [expletives] got to go ahead and hit for me."

Despite an ill-advised approach to such questioning -- as well as another less than stellar night at the plate on Wednesday -- Ortiz’s malcontent in regards to the media seems justifiable; right?

After all, it has been a mere three games, less than 2% of baseball’s regular season; shouldn’t the man affectionately known as "Big Papi" be given a pass until at least, say, mid-May?

And yet, it remains of near unanimous opinion that Ortiz is not the hitter he once was. It didn’t take a couple of 0-fers against the Yankees at the onset of 2010 for observers to become conscious of that -- it only exemplified it.

The question is not whether or not Ortiz’s skills have declined in recent years, it’s just how significant the impact of that decline will be to Boston in 2010 -- significant enough to warrant speculation this early in the season, after having played just three games? Not likely.

David Ortiz vs. Yankees (4/4-4/7): 1-11, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 3 SO

"[...] one goddamn hit?!?" - Bob Uecker as Harry Doyle in 'Major League'

While one look at Ortiz’s performance in 2010’s opening series against the Yankees offers little hope that he’s capable of again becoming the force in the middle of Boston’s lineup that he once was, there are a few things that are not being taken into account that warrant a certain level of consideration.

For one, New York did a tremendous job of countering Ortiz’s left-handed bat with unfavorable match ups. Good left-handed pitching has always been a troublesome area during David’s time with the Red Sox, and he received a large dose of it during the first three games of this season. Of his first twelve plate appearances, eight came against left-handed pitchers -- and good ones at that. Any left-handed hitter is going to struggle against the likes of C.C. Sabathia, Damaso Marte and Andy Pettitte; all of whom accounted for those eight of Ortiz’s twelve plate appearances.

In 2009, left-handed batters hit just .120 off of Marte, .198 against Sabathia and .282 off Pettitte.

Against that same trio this week, Ortiz went a combined 1-7 with a walk (0-1, BB vs. Marte; 0-3 vs. Sabathia; 1-3, RBI vs. Pettitte). To put that in perspective, 67% of Ortiz’s 2010 plate appearances have come against some of the better left-handed pitching in the American League -- needless to say, that’s a substantial difference from his career percentage of plate appearances versus lefties [29%]. While that doesn’t account for his four hitless at-bats against right-handers A.J. Burnett and Chan Ho Park, it does say a lot that the majority of his appearances came against traditionally tough left-handed pitching.

The Yankees’ pitchers weren’t the only ones putting Ortiz in position to disappoint, his own manager didn’t help the cause much either -- particularly in the late innings of Tuesday night’s loss.

With Boston trailing by a single run with nobody out in the bottom of the 8th inning in game two of this series -- and with Kevin Youkilis representing the tying run at second base -- the Yankees brought in left-handed relief specialist Damaso Marte to face David Ortiz. Marte has averaged over one strikeout per inning over the course of his career -- that number nearly doubling against left-handed hitters. The necessity to, at the very least, advance Youkilis to third with one out, combined with Ortiz’s tendency to strikeout when facing LHP, should have been enough for manager Terry Francona to consider pinch-hitting in this situation -- especially when Mike Lowell, who hit .301 against lefties in 2009, sits unutilized on the bench. Ortiz would end up flying out, completing an 0-4 night at the plate and leaving Youkilis stranded on second base -- the place where he would ultimately end the inning with Boston still trailing.

On the other hand, it’s hard to ignore the impact, or lack thereof, that Ortiz’s bat had in those first three games. As a designated hitter, it’s inexcusable to go 1-7 with runners in scoring position -- which is only amplified when the Yankees are in town. In other words, it’s easy to see how questions pertaining to last year’s sluggish start can be conjured up.

Facing both left and right-handed pitching, Ortiz appeared pull-happy and struggled with pitch recognition. His inability to lay off hard breaking pitches out of the strike zone and catch up to the fastballs that were in the zone became increasingly apparent by the end of game three. But again, we’re a mere three games in.

That being said, the recent expletive-laden interview that Ortiz has been denounced for in the media can be considered understandable to some degree given the circumstances. It’s toilsome enough task appeasing Red Sox Nation without constantly being reminded of last season’s similarly slow start.

Prior to the beginning of the regular season, manager Terry Francona went on record saying that Ortiz had to be "a force" as the Red Sox’s full-time DH in order for them to be successful offensively. That, however, is clearly becoming a concern amongst Red Sox faithful -- a fan base that has never been timid about voicing any displeasure to begin with.

While it can hardly be considered time to dust off the panic button after just three games, especially considering the aforementioned circumstances that played a part in Big Papi’s initial struggles, one has to recognize the increasingly indubitable hole in the lineup that currently occupies the DH spot if that lack of production remains, well, lacking.

If in the next month or so Ortiz continues to struggle in his attempt to get comfortable at the plate -- keep in mind that he had a less than stellar Spring Training campaign as well (.226, 14 SO, 5 BB in 62 AB) -- and the Yankees and Rays start to pull away early in the AL East race, then it may be time to start looking for a solution whether it be internally or outside of the organization.

However, until that time comes, it’s important for fans and the media alike to let Big Papi be. As Terry Francona said, "I don't want David looking over his shoulder a game and a half into the season."

After all, the original David didn’t have to deal with the heavy expectations of Red Sox Nation when slaying his Goliath -- so why should ours?