Ortiz in a league of his own

Ortiz in a league of his own

ANAHEIM -- For those who sit in the Red Sox clubhouse, all they need to do to cast an unofficial vote for the American League's Most Valuable Player is to look in the direction of the bear of a man who typically chills on the couch in the pregame hours, getting his relaxation while he can before unleashing his plan of attack for the night.

Kevin Millar doesn't have an MVP vote. That honor goes to select voters from the Baseball Writers Association of America. Asked who his MVP was a few days ago, Millar merely pointed his finger toward a lounging David Ortiz.

"David Ortiz. What makes it neat is not that he's a good player or hits home runs; this guy is a tremendous person, which makes him fun to root for," said Millar. "This guy is an unbelievable human being. He's fun, he has a heart of gold. And he's unbelievable in the batter's box. So that makes it so much more gratifying. You root for this guy. He's an all-around good guy and the most dangerous left-hander in the big leagues right now. Who's better?"

When Barry Bonds was healthy, there would be one possible answer. But right now? When you factor in his propensity to come through in the clutch with his sheer ability to mash right-handers and left-handers alike from the spring and summer and into the fall, it's hard to find any left-handed hitter in the same league.

He's already led the Red Sox to a World Series championship. He has become a man of the people with a nickname to fit the bill (Big Papi) in the process. The only thing, it seems, that Ortiz hasn't done is win the MVP award.

Ortiz, who is hitting .297 with 31 homers and 107 RBIs, thinks he could find a spot on his mantle for an MVP trophy; perhaps he could put it next to the ALCS MVP he won last year.

"It would be great. I've been close the past couple of years," Ortiz said.

Indeed. He was fifth in the voting in 2003, then moved to fourth last year. Early prognosticators have Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Vladimir Guerrero and Gary Sheffield among this year's top candidates. In Boston, they say, "Why not Ortiz?"

"It's special when you play with MVPs, the best players in the league," said Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon, who is having quite a year himself. "Teams know this guy is a wrecking force. Teams know their focus has got to be on him. The one guy you don't want to beat you is Ortiz."

That, sometimes, is not a realistic hope. B.J. Ryan, the overpowering lefty from the Orioles, didn't want Ortiz to beat him on June 2. But there was Ortiz, turning around a 3-2 heater for a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth that instantly turned a 4-3 deficit into a 6-4 win. For some players, that would be a hit to stand above all others. For Ortiz, it was simply the fifth walkoff home run he's hit in a Boston uniform.

Last week in Detroit, the Red Sox were two outs away from suffering their second loss in a row to the Tigers. But Ortiz took matters into his own bat, blasting Fernando Rodney's heater over the wall in right for a dramatic equalizer. Then, in the 10th, he pummeled a three-run shot to put an exclamation point on the 10-7 win.

Because Ortiz is a DH and can't contribute with his glove, his impact on the Red Sox is profound.

"Every day I just get ready to do something, especially at the right time," said Ortiz. "Like I say, it's something, if you can provide it that way, that's the toughest part of this game, to hit. Anybody can go out there and make a play, but not everybody can come and hit a homer to tie a game or win a game or get a big hit in a big situation. That's the toughest part of this game."

Even if Ortiz -- who ranks third in the American League in slugging percentage and fourth in on-base percentage -- makes it look unfairly easy at times.

Since signing with the Red Sox as a low-risk, high-reward free agent in January, 2003 (the reward has long since hit the ceiling), Ortiz has gone from a platoon player to an icon. Once former manager Grady Little deemed that Ortiz was an everyday player, all he did was carry the Red Sox on his back in the second half of the 2003 season.

Ortiz came back in 2004 even better, helped by his enhanced ability to hammer the inside pitch, which was once his biggest weakness. It added up to a .301 batting average, 47 doubles, 41 homers and 139 RBIs. And that was just the regular season.

The gregarious slugger turned himself into a legend in the postseason, lifting the Red Sox to a Division Series sweep of the Angels by hammering a walkoff blaster over the Monster in the 10th inning in Game 3.

Then, with the obituaries of the 2004 Red Sox all but written, Ortiz rose from the ashes to deliver a game-ending homer against the Yankees in the 12th inning of Game 4 of the ALCS, and then a 14th-inning finish (a two-out blooper that fell in) the very next day. And for good measure, he hammered a two-run shot in the first inning of Game 7 in Yankee Stadium and a three-run bullet down the right-field line in his first at-bat of the World Series.

Big Papi had reached the peak of popularity. Everywhere he went last winter, someone wanted to shake his hand or just thank him for his accomplishments.

Still, he was motivated to crank his game up yet another notch, and that's what he's done this season by fixing the one remaining weakness as a hitter. The one thing Ortiz never was before this season was patient. He was the first to admit that he wasn't as disciplined as his partner in mashing, Ramirez. So here he is, entering play on Monday, leading the American League with 75 walks, the same number he had all of last season.

"We try so hard to stay on him about staying in the zone. We don't want him to go out of the zone," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "And he is so diligent about watching pitches. He's a DH. He has time to go watch video. When that ball is an inch or two off the plate, he knows it's an inch or two off the plate. That's how professional he is in his approach."

While his home run hacks have already been the stuff of legend, Ortiz will do anything to win. Take Sunday afternoon, for example, when he surveyed the latest shift against him and dropped a bunt single down the third base line in the top of the eighth inning. A couple of pitches later, Ramirez hit one into the cheap seats and the Red Sox were on their way to a 5-1 victory.

Ortiz hadn't bunted since his days in a Dominican Rookie League. But the idea struck him and he went with it. Like nearly everything else he has touched since arriving in Boston, Ortiz's bunt turned to gold.

"I've been here three years, you seen me bunt before?" said Ortiz. "When you see those 0-for-3's, 0-for-8, 0-for-12, you might see one of those once in a while."

The bunt came at a time Ortiz had gone just 1-for-15 in a four-game series against the Angels. Nobody wants him to make bunting a habit, but it was an example of the way he constantly finds new ways to foil the opponent.

"It seems like he improves at-bat to at-bat," Red Sox outfielder Gabe Kapler said of Ortiz. "He's done some special things. What makes him extra special is that the more pressure the situation, the more he shows up. He's tremendous in the clutch."

And as long as Ortiz occupies that No. 3 hole for the Red Sox, you can't discount the chances that Boston will make another run into late October.

"If we don't have Ortiz, we might not be in this situation," said Damon. "All the game-winning hits, all the come-from-behind wins, it's pretty special. A-Rod deserves to be in the top five, there's no doubt about it. Manny is probably second. Sheffield is right up there. Those guys do remarkable things. Vladimir is going to be up there. But David is definitely No. 1."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.