Big Papi passed over by Francona

BOSTON -- The signs are there, for all to see, as clearly as the home run Mike Lowell hit Wednesday night into the Monster seats, the words suggesting otherwise now ringing hollow.

For the better part of seven seasons, the heart, soul and sinew of the Red Sox has run through a locker at the far end of the clubhouse, the row closest to the trainer's room, the one where David Ortiz hangs up his clothes.

That epoch is accelerating toward an inglorious end, one that Ortiz feels powerless to avoid.

"I've got to be ready," Ortiz said quietly in the wake of Boston's second straight walk-off win over the Texas Rangers, an 8-7, 12-inning victory. "But I'm just an employee here."

On Tuesday night, with a game on the line, Ortiz was called back to the dugout for a pinch hitter, Lowell. It was reminiscent of a time 22 years earlier when another fading slugger, future Hall of Famer Jim Rice, was lifted for pinch hitter Spike Owen, which led Rice to shove manager Joe Morgan in the dugout.

Rice's reaction, "as a guy who's been around for a long time," was understandable, teammate Marty Barrett said afterward. "There's an unwritten rule," he said, "that you don't pinch hit for a guy that's got 15 or 16 years."

That unwritten rule didn't hold water then for Morgan, and it didn't Tuesday night for Terry Francona, who at the beginning of the season said he would refrain from pinch hitting for Ortiz because he didn't want him looking over his shoulder. Thirteen games into the season, Ortiz can commence looking, as Francona said he had a game to win and was going to do whatever he could to win it. That meant batting Lowell against a left-hander, Darren Oliver. Lowell drew a walk.

Ortiz did not lay his hands on Francona. His frustration had already spilled over on a night when he struck out twice and fouled out while seeing nothing but fastballs, 19 in all, and failing to put a single one in play. After his third at-bat, the one in which he popped out in front of the Rangers' dugout, Ortiz snapped his bat like a pencil over his knee.

Ortiz and Francona had spoken by phone earlier that day, Francona said, and Wednesday afternoon met in the manager's office, after Ortiz had been part of a group taking early hitting.

"He didn't fight me on it," Francona said of taking out Ortiz the night before. "I wouldn't expect anyone who we pinch hit for giving us high-fives.

"He has a lot of pride, he has been an unbelievable player. We care about all of our players."

With the Rangers starting a left-hander, Matt Harrison, on Wednesday, Francona inserted Lowell into the lineup as DH, just as he had done April 15 in Minnesota against left-hander Francisco Liriano. Lowell had a single in four trips, and Liriano shut out the Sox 8-0.

But Wednesday night, on his first at-bat, Lowell powered a full-count pitch into the left-field seats for his first home run of the season, which gave him one more than Ortiz has. Lowell walked on his next at-bat and singled in a run in his third.

Ortiz, meanwhile, remained on the bench, even as Harrison was pulled after four innings and was followed by five relievers, all of them right-handers. Lowell made the last out of the seventh against Chris Ray. There were two outs in the 10th when Lowell came to the plate again, this time against Neftali Feliz, who was registering 100 mph and up on the Fenway scoreboard.

Once, that would have been an epic matchup, Ortiz against a kid whose fastball trailed vapor. On Wednesday night, there was barely a glance at the dugout to see whether Ortiz, who has struck out 17 times in 41 at-bats and has been overpowered by pitchers far less gifted than Feliz, would be sent to the plate.

And when Francona finally decided to use a pinch hitter, to lead off the 12th, he looked past Ortiz and his .146 batting average and called on Jeremy Hermida, the man with 60 career home runs.

Ortiz, who nearly hit that many home runs in a single season, 2007, when he hit 54, the man with two World Series rings and more walk-off home runs than any player in Sox history and more home runs than any DH who ever played, stayed in the dugout.

Had he hoped to grab a bat at some point Wednesday night?

"Obviously," he said, wearing a Boston Bruins cap as he walked out of the clubhouse. "But I just do what I'm told."

Hermida struck out, but for the second straight night, the Red Sox rallied to win, Kevin Youkilis' double accomplishing what Darnell McDonald's single had the night before, giving the club a walk-off win.

A team that had looked so moribund in losing four straight to the Tampa Bay Rays over Patriots Day weekend had sprung back to life. But to steal the description once self-applied by a Hall of Famer in pinstripes, Reggie Jackson, Ortiz is no longer the straw that stirs the Red Sox drink. That plaque he was given by Sox owner John W. Henry, proclaiming him as the greatest clutch hitter in team history, might as well be stashed in the back of his closet.

And few people would disagree with Francona's decision to look to someone other than Ortiz for deliverance. The number of people still professing belief in Big Papi can probably be comfortably seated at a table for one.

Thursday night, with lefty C.J. Wilson pitching for the Rangers, Lowell will be back in the Sox lineup. A player very nearly discarded himself by the Sox in December, before a trade with the Rangers was voided because he needed thumb surgery, Lowell now looms as a viable option for significant at-bats as DH.

"I haven't not felt good, to use your double negative, since the last week of spring training," he said. "I'm seeing the ball well, and when I'm laying off pitches that are close, I'm seeing the ball especially well and I thought I did that today and had some good hits. I'll see if I can continue that."

Does Lowell expect that as long as he is swinging this way, he'll continue to play?

"I'll take it day by day," Lowell said. "I'm not that good at predicting things."

The season for predictions is over. The hard choices are being made. And Big Papi is not blind to what is hurtling his way.

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.