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Big Papi, icon of a region and stealer of moments, delivers again

BOSTON -- Tigers right fielder Torii Hunter dived head-first over the wall and into the Red Sox bullpen as David Ortiz's shot nestled into a bullpen catcher's glove, simultaneously bringing home the four quickest, greatest, cruelest and craziest runs the great Ortiz has ever produced at once.

"Papi, Papi, Papi," the Fenway faithful chanted when the Red Sox completed their late and stunning comeback, thanks mostly to Ortiz, the man they affectionately and enthusiastically call Big Papi.

The Tigers' massive lead shrank to nothing with that one swift swing, and the legend of Ortiz continues to grow exponentially as he advances in age, first into his mid 30s, now in his late 30s. He regularly defies the laws of nature with age. He's so good and so clutch, as good as he ever was, he is occasionally questioned: How?

If he's getting a little less patient and accessible as he moves toward 40, there's no sign he's slowed as a hitter or clutch player. He has his bad moments, too. But they don't last.

One day after going 0-for-4 in a wipeout win for the Tigers he's so unhappy he doesn't talk to the media, the next he turns this whole ALCS on its ear, producing maybe the grandest moment of a career of postseason moments. Nobody expected this Red Sox comeback, not the way they were being shut down, pitch by pitch, by a tandem of brilliant Tigers starters, first Anibal Sanchez in Game 1 and then Max Scherzer on Sunday night in Game 2.

But if the Red Sox did come back, you had to know Papi would be the man to deliver.

"There's nobody surprised when he does what he does. But it's unbelievable," said Jarrod Saltalamacchia, whose game-winning line single beat the Tigers 6-5 in a Game 2 ALCS walkoff. Saltalamacchia's hit came just one inning after Ortiz produced a moment for New England to cherish for years, especially if the Red Sox go on to win the pennant and World Series.

You expect it. Yet, you can't quite believe it. That's Ortiz's miraculous career in a nutshell.

By percentage, he may not quite be Carlos Beltran in October. But by moment, no one has him beat. Not even possible.

If he isn't a Hall of Famer, a recount will be needed. Some say no, that he got great late, that he played DH, that he made the survey list. I say he is. He's had too many moment like this one.

Eight series in a row during the best Red Sox years, Ortiz posted an OPS of at least .900. That's unreal if you think about it. In one division series against Anaheim, it was 2.418, which means he was pretty much unstoppable. But it was excellent every series during that glorious run.

Ortiz has 15 postseason homers and a .935 career OPS in October. Those are percentages just on his career norm (he has a .930 OPS in the regular season). That's when you know he's a player who embraces the mammoth moment.

The key, Red Sox manager John Farrell said, is he "keeps his heart-rate under control."

And that's precisely when he usually sends the place and all of Red Sox Nation into hysterics.

The story's been told many times. Originally, he came here for $1.25 million, one of many solid on-base guys brought here on the cheap by young GM Theo Epstein after Ortiz had an off year in Minnesota. He was in that group with Jeremy Giambi, who's a punchline/footnote in a movie about another team now. Meanwhile, in just over a decade here, Ortiz has built a legend to rank somewhere with the icons Williams, Yaz, Rice, Nomar and Manny here in the craziest baseball town in America.

This great Red Sox year looked to be in peril, as the Tigers dominated for 16 innings. The Red Sox barely scratched out a hit here and there, and it was 5-1 when Ortiz strode to the plate, the most dangerous man around.

The Tigers' iconic manager, Jim Leyland, who had used his one reliable lefty, Drew Smyly, earlier in the inning against Jacoby Ellsbury, went to his pretty reliable closer, Joaquin Benoit, with the bases loaded and two out in the eighth for Ortiz. Considering the two available lefties in their pen -- Phil Coke, who's barely been used this year, and rookie Jose Alvarez -- aren't really viable options, it wasn't a shock.

"Coke hasn't pitched a big game for quite a while. Benoit is our guy against the lefties, and we felt he gave us the best chance to get the out," Leyland said.

That makes sense. The only thing you might wonder, in hindsight, is whether Leyland might have been better off saving Smyly, who had walked Ellsbury.

Anyway, Ortiz wasn't surprised in the least. In fact, he was ready for Benoit.

"There's a reason Leyland did what he did," Ortiz said. "(Benoit has) been doing (well) for them."

Benoit has been a good closer for a few months, Ortiz has been living for moments like this forever. Farrell said Ortiz has been studying film of Benoit, preparing for just such a moment.

"I watch everybody," Ortiz said, downplaying his special study of Benoit. "I watch every single pitcher."

This time, he didn't have to see Benoit for long. The first pitch, a change-up, was a little down, and a little away, and Ortiz liked it. That's the one he sent into the pen, the very first one.

Ortiz, among other things, is a hitting savant. He just knows what's coming, and he knows it most when it matters most.

"I knew they weren't going to let me beat them with a fastball," Ortiz said. "That pitch was pretty much hittable. It was on the plate. And I put a good swing on it."

It's precisely what Ortiz has been doing for years, especially in October. For years, it was him and his runningmate Manny Ramirez. Now it is just him, ageless and calm.

If there are nerves, they are rarely seen. Game 1 may have been one of those times. He was jumping at pitches, upset at himself. The team had four days off and didn't seem ready for all of Sanchez's diving and darting offerings. Ortiz said he did some "funny things" with the bat.

He went 0-4 with two strikeouts, and didn't talk after the game. That's when you know he is mad.

That's when you know he is desperate to get even. But desperate in a good way.

Yet, he stays calm when the pressure's on, and even when things looked bleakest.

Ortiz sent that first pitch skyward, then watched the right fielder Hunter, his buddy, track it. They embraced before the game, and now Ortiz feared he'd snatch away his moment. But, as Ortiz noted, the ball seemed to take a turn, right into the glove of the squatting bullpen catcher, as Hunter, famous for his wall catches, did his flip into the pen.

"Torii always scares me," said Ortiz, who doesn't scare easy.

This play looked like it might be set up for Hunter, well known for his home-run saving leaps. But the moment was made for Ortiz, and no one else could do a thing about it.

 
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