Big Papi loses his cool after loss

BOSTON -- The story is as old as the game itself, a great player fighting to keep the shadows from closing in on him before he's ready to concede he is something less than he was.

The town he once owned is now openly discussing his successor. His team, one he carried to glory it had not known in decades, offers no assurances that his services will be desired beyond this season. His income, one that has allowed him to live like royalty, is unlikely to be duplicated at the same scale beyond October. And his swing, which once commanded respect accorded only to a few, now is subjected to constant scrutiny, scouts and media and fans forming an unholy chorus of doubters.

Tuesday night, it all became too much for David Ortiz. Behind his Big Papi persona, Ortiz in happier days would have mocked his inquisitors with good-natured insults and deflected the tougher questions with insouciant bravado and brio.

But Big Papi under siege is a wounded animal. That was the case last season, in the swirl of his awful start and steroids accusations, and it was true again Tuesday night in the aftermath of a 6-4 loss to the New York Yankees.

Surely, Ortiz had to have known that it would be open season on him until he proved once and for all that talk of the six-week homerless drought that comprised his dreadful start last season was not worth resurrecting in 2010.

Of course, it's grossly unfair to raise the specter of that misery returning based on seven hitless at-bats in the season's first two games. But when the question did come, when Ortiz was reminded that last season's start would be a topic du jour, he reacted with fury.

"Good," he said, turning to face the reporters encircling him. "You guys wait 'til [expletive] happens, then you can talk [expletive]. Two [expletive] games, and already you [expletives] are going crazy.

"What's up with that, man? [Expletive]. [Expletive] 160 games left. That's a [expletive]. One of you [expletives] got to go ahead and hit for me."

With that, he jammed on a hat and plowed through a crowded clubhouse, one that on this night offered no sanctuary. The pressure has been building steadily all spring, one in which he worked diligently with hitting coach Dave Magadan to stay back longer to give him a fighting chance against the pitches that were thrown past him with impunity last season, with no safety valve in sight.

And longtime Ortiz watchers were left to wonder if this bitter brew would hinder his efforts even more.

"That's something you've got to ask him," said first baseman Kevin Youkilis, who was unaware of Ortiz's outburst. "If David's getting frustrated about it, that's something I haven't seen. I think he gets frustrated when he's going good and getting outs too.

"We're all like that. I don't know. He's going to be fine. He's going to hit in the end. Two games, I know people are going to put pressure on him because of what happened last year, but he'll bounce out of it."

Sunday night, Ortiz was handled with ease by Yankees left-hander CC Sabathia, who retired Ortiz on two rollers and an infield fly. Tuesday night against right-hander A.J. Burnett, Ortiz smoked a ball into the teeth of an overshifted Yankees defense, right at second baseman Robinson Cano, turning a hit for someone else into an easy 4-3 putout.

He grounded out again to Cano in the third before going down swinging on a nasty curveball from Burnett to end the fifth. In the eighth, against left-handed reliever Damaso Marte, he hit a harmless fly to center.

"All it takes is a couple of bloops, a couple of line drives, to fall in and he's 4-for-4," Youkilis said. "When he's hitting line drives to right field and center field and left field, that's when he's going well. He just has to go up there and have good at-bats. He'll be fine."

But until then, the questions will persist. During manager Terry Francona's postgame news conference, a graphic appeared on NESN, comparing Ortiz's stats against Andy Pettitte, the left-hander who will start for the Yankees on Wednesday, to those of Mike Lowell against Pettitte. The subject on the table was whether Lowell should draw the start instead of Ortiz, given the way left-handers have handled Papi the past two seasons.

Francona was asked Tuesday night whether he'd given any thought to having Lowell hit for Ortiz against Marte after Youkilis' leadoff single put the potential tying run on base.

"No," Francona said. "We're two games into the season. I don't think we want to start doing that. That's not because Mikey can't hit. But the big picture needs to be remembered."

Right now, the portrait is that of a big man dealing with the type of stress that comes only to the few who have achieved the heights he has.

"He's been like that the last couple of days," said Mike Cameron, who is a newcomer to the Sox clubhouse but has known Ortiz since playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic more than a decade ago.

"I don't know if I'd say he's been emotional, but all year long he's going to be in the middle of it. Times like this, he has to remember there are a lot of good players around him."

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.