Sizemore takes big step with walk-off hit

BOSTON -- For the better part of three months now, he has been wearing the same uniform, sitting in the same clubhouses and dugouts, riding on the same buses and planes, sweating in the same Florida heat and shivering in the same New England cold. His new teammates, he has said, could not have made him feel more welcome.

But let there be no doubt that Grady Sizemore crossed a threshold Tuesday night. With his 12th-inning single off the base of the Fenway Park wall in left-center field, Sizemore declared himself as more than a former All-Star trying to recapture some semblance of lost glory. At last, in the most tangible of ways -- a walk-off hit -- Sizemore let it be known that he, too, has something vital to offer this team.

That’s why Sizemore pulled up short even before reaching second base. This was one celebration that could not wait, and the Quiet Man was not going to be short-changed. He bumped chests with Mike Napoli, who was the runner on first base when Sizemore connected off Cincinnati reliever Logan Ondrusek, then turned to face the onslaught of teammates charging toward him from the dugout, those players joined by David Ortiz, who had crossed the plate with the winning run in Boston’s 4-3 victory over the Cincinnati Reds.

Can you ever feel more wanted than in the moment when a teammate -- in this case, Jonny Gomes -- has hoisted you aloft?

“Nights like tonight,” manager John Farrell said, “go a long way toward rebuilding Grady.”

What had seemed such a feel-good story in the spring -- Sizemore returning after an absence of two full years and just a handful of games played in the past four seasons -- had given worrisome indications that it might not have legs.

The Sox determined early on that Sizemore could not play center field on a daily basis, and also was an unsatisfactory option to bat leadoff. The hits that had come in bunches early on -- five multihit games and two home runs in his first 10 games -- had grown scarce. In his next 13 games, Sizemore went 5-for-48, a .104 average, the kind of slump that can make a man doubt himself, and management to contemplate what it might do next.

“I knew I was going to go through ups and downs,” Sizemore said. “You’re not going to be gone as long as I have and expect to just have everything be smooth all year. You expect that, you just try to minimize it and try to find a way to get out of it as soon as possible.”

On Sunday, Sizemore began to find his way out. He had two hits, including a double, in a 3-2 loss to the Athletics. Tuesday night against the Reds, there would be three more hits -- an RBI single to score Dustin Pedroia in the third, a line single to lead off the eighth, and then the game-winner, a drive to the base of the wall on a low fastball over the heart of the plate from Ondrusek.

Ortiz, who in almost comical fashion had been looking into the dugout in anticipation of a pinch runner who never came, was able to jog home with the winning run. Sizemore, meanwhile, had his first walk-off hit in 2,825 days, when he had just turned 24 and had only recently been named an All-Star for the first time.

Aug. 11, 2006: That’s a lifetime ago for a player who feared the game had been taken away from him by the seven surgeries he endured in a span of 53 months, including microfracture surgery on both knees. Those were the procedures that left him lying on his back for eight hours a day for eight weeks, his knee attached to something called a passive motion machine, ensuring that his knee remained lubricated without bearing any weight. Sizemore went through that eight-week torture not once, but twice.

All with the idea that a night like Tuesday might be possible again, even at age 31, even if the splendid physical gifts of his youth had been ravaged by injury.

“I’ve got to think he feels like the game is coming back to him in a way,” Farrell said, “and he’s doing some things he hasn’t done in a while.

“But to walk things off? I’ve got to believe that tonight gives him even further the feeling that he’s contributing here, rather than somebody coming back from an injury.”

Grady Sizemore burned to show he could still play, and pushed himself beyond what would have been a point of tolerance for many of his peers. Imagine, then, how sweet it must have been, to be held aloft by Gomes while hearing the cheers resounding from every corner of this ancient ballpark. Sizemore, who prides himself on his self-control, let his heart have its way Tuesday.

“It was pretty telling,” he said. “It was a good feeling. I try not to be too emotional out there, try to keep it on the same level. Right there, I let it out a little bit.”

It remains to be seen, of course, where Sizemore takes it from here, though in the span of two games he raised his batting average from a season-low .205 to .242. More challenges surely lie ahead.

But now, after his biggest moment since the three-run homer he hit off CC Sabathia of the Yankees on April 11, he can take on those challenges knowing that he has made a difference.