FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The sign at JetBlue Park has an arrow pointing in the direction of Boston, with these words: 1,456 MILES.
It seems like a long way, but Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz is a little bit closer after another day in his continuing rehab -- his first extended spring training game.
Under a blistering sun Tuesday afternoon, Ortiz went 1-for-5 while batting second in each of the first five innings against three different Orioles pitchers in front of about 40 fans on Field No. 5. He even wore his familiar No. 34 jersey -- a day after donning a nameless No. 77.
“He’s looking more comfortable,” said Class A Lowell hitting coach Noah Hall, who has worked with Ortiz for the past two days. “It seems like he’s hitting a better groove. He hit the ball hard three times in five at-bats. He’s making good progress. It’s only the second day. His hands are looking quick. He looked like he was ready to hit the fastball.”
But there’s one other thing Hall has seen from Ortiz. One of the greatest players in the team’s history is doing his work far from the glamour of Fenway Park -- and playing with and against mostly obscure players who still treasure sending their parents photos of themselves in action -- but he’s showing everybody what it takes to be a superstar.
“It’s been impressive,” Hall said. “I’ve worked with him the last two days in the cage. I know the work he’s done there and in the games. What I’ve found is that he’s on every swing. He’s a serious student of the game. It’s no surprise he’s as good as he is. Every swing has a plan behind it. I’m really impressed with his approach, even the cage work.
“And yesterday, how hard he was running was great to see. It lets the younger players know, ‘This is Big Papi. He’s not known for his speed, but he’s busting his butt.’ There are no excuses for younger guys not to get after it. Papi’s far from Boston, but he’s respecting the game.”
Ortiz is recovering from a tear in his right Achilles’ tendon and did not play in any spring training games. He reported to Florida expecting to participate in full workouts, but he experienced inflammation in both heels and was shut down on March 10.
In his first two at-bats Tuesday -- both against 26-year-old right-handed knuckleballer Zach Staniewicz -- Ortiz reached first on an error by second baseman Tucker Nathans and was retired on a hard grounder to first that advanced a runner to second.
Those were fascinating duels: Papi vs. the Niekro protege. Staniewicz pitched in independent leagues three years ago, but has never done it in the minor leagues. He worked with Hall of Famer Phil Niekro in 2011 and was told that he had to make the knuckler his only pitch.
After Staniewicz joined the U.S. Air Force Reserve and played for the U.S. Military All-Stars, his coach, Terry Allvord, called a buddy, former Red Sox general manager and current Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette, to set up a tryout. Duquette ended up signing Staniewicz to a minor-league deal last summer without a tryout. He worked with Niekro during spring training as the only knuckleballer in the Orioles’ system.
Hall said Ortiz hadn’t taken a swing at a knuckleball all spring.
“It was obviously good for him, especially since R.A. Dickey is in our division, although no two knuckleballers are exactly the same,” Hall said. “He was fine. He didn’t complain, ‘Why am I facing this guy?’ When it comes to Papi, he’s ready to hit anyone who’s throwing to him. He has a lot of confidence.”
Ortiz faced 19-year-old right-hander Sean McAdams, the Orioles' 14th-round selection in the 2012 first-year player draft, in his third and fourth at-bats, hitting a hard grounder to first for an unassisted putout and then striking out while attempting to check his swing on a slider in the dirt.
In his final at-bat, he ripped a line-drive single to right-center on a 1-1 fastball from 19-year-old Luc Rennie, a 16th-round pick last summer by the Orioles.
“On that strikeout, he (Ortiz) obviously hadn’t seen that guy before, and it was the first time he had seen that pitch in that at-bat,” Hall said. “It was the only at-bat he didn’t have a quality at-bat -- (which is) any time you make good contact or do your job in situational hitting. In his first at-bat, he moved the runner over, which is a good example of a professional hitter. It was a good example for our young guys: Even Big Papi plays the game right. He wasn’t trying to hit a home run.”
After his fifth at-bat, Ortiz rode off the field in a golf cart that went behind the outfield fence and into a restricted area that led to the clubhouse, avoiding the autograph seekers. His day was done at 2:18 p.m.
That part of the day was a disappointment to Mary Ellen Porter, a West Hartford, Conn., resident who left her Fort Myers condo and came to the game “just to be close” to Ortiz. But she still left satisfied.
“Some solid hitting,” she said, “but I think he can do a whole lot better in Boston. I think he’ll be going out of the park. Forget about all those dribblers.”
Ortiz is expected to play in another game Wednesday, then is likely to be sent on a rehab assignment, provided he does not have any setbacks. He is on schedule to play in Triple-A Pawtucket’s home opener Thursday and could rejoin the Red Sox for their April 19-21 series against the Royals at Fenway Park.
Ortiz has told manager John Farrell that he would feel comfortable returning to Boston after 25 to 30 at-bats for Pawtucket.
* Pitcher Franklin Morales, who pitched only one inning in spring training (Feb. 27) due to a back injury, made quick work of the Orioles in the first inning.
Morales, who is being stretched out as a starter but also could return in the bullpen, threw strikes on 10 of his 15 pitches, forcing a ground out to short, a broken-bat grounder to first and a grounder to second. Red Sox coaches requested another batter, and Morales gave up a single to left.
“I feel good,” he said. “My command’s good, pitches good. I located my pitches. It was the first time I see these guys, so that’s good. I tried to throw strikes and pitch to contact. I’m ready. My back felt great. I worked out with the trainer, and right now, I feel normal.”
The plan for Morales is to build him up to the point where he makes three-inning appearances. His next scheduled appearance is Friday.