There's a hole in the middle of Boston's lineup, and David Ortiz is its center

BOSTON -- When David Ortiz homered off Seattle’s Felix Hernandez last month, ending a streak of 17 games without a home run, he happily proclaimed that his home runs were like grapes -- they come in bunches.

Then he homered in his next game, off Yovani Gallardo of the Texas Rangers in Fenway Park, and Ortiz looked like he was backing up his words.

Instead, the slugger’s power shriveled on the vine. Ortiz went his next 18 games without going deep until Thursday night in Baltimore, when he connected off Orioles reliever Chaz Roe, who hung a slider in the eighth inning. That ended a string of 69 at-bats without a home run.

Until that at-bat, it had been another frustrating night for Ortiz, who struck out, flied weakly to left with the bases loaded and no outs in the fourth, and sent another routine fly to left in the sixth with a runner on first and no outs.

Ortiz marked his home run with one of his patented bat flips, but there were no forecasts of an impending power surge. Instead, there was nothing.

"I’m not talking tonight," he told reporters afterward.

In the 18 games since he homered in back-to-back games, Ortiz is batting just .174 (12 for 69) with one home run and six RBIs. At home, where the Boston Red Sox return to face the Toronto Blue Jays, winners of eight straight, Ortiz has just two home runs all season, in 112 plate appearances. He has five home runs on the road, but is batting just .183 (19 for 104).

In the wake of his prolonged slump, there has been increased discussion about whether Ortiz, at 39, might be going into permanent decline. Some of the judgments voiced by scouts have been harsh, one saying this week that Ortiz was finished. Another scout insisted, however, that Ortiz’s bat speed is still there, but he’s pulling off the ball, as in his first at-bat against Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman. Ortiz flied out on a fastball he ordinarily would hammer into the gap, but because was pulling off, managed only a harmless fly. The scout conceded that perhaps Ortiz was cheating a bit, starting his swing early to catch up with the fastball.

But Ortiz’s prolonged struggles have left the Sox with a gaping hole in the one place they can least afford it, the middle of the lineup. It hasn’t just been Ortiz.

Hanley Ramirez hit 10 home runs and drove in 22 runs in April. In 35 games since, he has eight extra-base hits, including three home runs, and has driven in just 10 runs while playing cover-your-eyes defense in left field.

On May 11, Pablo Sandoval was hitting .302. Since then he is batting .163, and his two-run double Wednesday night was his first extra-base hit in 24 games.

Mike Napoli showed signs of breaking out of his slump, batting .314 with five home runs, but his past four games have been rough -- 1-for-15, seven strikeouts.

But because of his stature as one of the game’s foremost hitters, most of the attention has focused on Ortiz. And his struggles tend to infect the whole clubhouse, since teammates tend to feed off the positive energy and life he brings when he’s going good. Those days have been in very short supply in 2015.