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Age-defying power surge puts 500 home runs within reach for David Ortiz

MIAMI -- David Ortiz was treated like a rock star here, a two-hour flight from his native Dominican Republic. His every at-bat was greeted by loud cheers, and he was mobbed by well-wishers after the team's first game here Tuesday night, signing autographs and posing for pictures.

"It feels like I was playing in the Dominican," he said afterward. "It feels good. It feels like you're playing at home."

And Ortiz gave them what they came to see: two home runs Wednesday afternoon, including a 432-foot blast into the upper deck off Marlins left-hander Adam Conley that was the third longest home run hit by a visiting player in Marlins Park this season, behind two Mets, Juan Uribe (436 feet) and Michael Conforto (433).

That continued an astonishing surge of power by the 39-year-old Boston Red Sox designated hitter, who is now on pace to achieve the coveted 500-home run milestone before the end of this season. Ortiz entered 2015 with 466 career home runs, 34 short of 500. He is now on pace to finish the season with 36 home runs. With 48 games left for the Red Sox, he has 491 home runs.

"I'm not really trying to accomplish any personal thing," Ortiz said. "I'm just trying to play the game the way I'm supposed to play it.

"If I'm swinging the bat good I'm going to try to put a good swing on the pitch every time. That's how I play the game. But that's all I can control."

Just two months ago, the notion that Ortiz would be approaching 500 was far-fetched. Through his first 52 games, he had hit just 6 home runs, was batting .219, and was sparking a national conversation that he was in steep decline.

But in his next 52 games, a stretch that ended here Wednesday, Ortiz has been on a Ruthian tear, hitting 19 home runs while posting a 1.034 OPS. Projected over a full season, Ortiz would finish with 59 home runs at that rate. Only J.D. Martinez of the Tigers and Carlos Gonzalez of the Rockies, with 20 apiece, have hit more home runs in that stretch.

He has become even more prolific since the All-Star break, bashing 10 home runs in 23 games, five coming on this eight-game trip to New York, Detroit, and Miami. Only Nelson Cruz of the Mariners (13) and Chris Davis of the Orioles and Gonzalez with 12 apiece, have hit more home runs since the break than Ortiz, who is tied with Jays sluggers Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson.

"He's a great hitter," manager John Farrell said. "Anyone approaching the 500 mark has done a lot of good things for a lot of years. David is certainly in the midst of a very strong year once again."

A remarkable aspect of Ortiz's power this season, as noted here, is that he is hitting home runs for greater distance than at any time in at least the last 10 seasons. His average true distance, as calculated by ESPN Stats and Info using their Home Run Tracker, is 408.9 feet. His last eight home runs have averaged 421 feet, an average that fell when he lined a 378-foot home run off Marlins left-handed reliever Chris Narveson in the seventh inning.

Ortiz now has hit 11 home runs that have been measured at 430 feet or more, the most he has hit that traveled that distance since he also hit 11 in 2006, the season he hit a club-record 54 home runs.

The home runs off Marlins lefties Conley and Narveson underscored another recent development. Through June, Ortiz had not taken a left-hander deep. Since then, he has five home runs and is batting .348 off lefties.

"What he's doing against left-handers is pretty impressive," Farrell said. "Base hits, long balls, he's certainly locked in, squaring up a number of different types of pitches."

To be displaying this kind of power at his age, of course, is what sets this season apart for Ortiz. Only six players have hit 30 or more home runs in a season at the age of 39 or older: Barry Bonds, who hit 45 at age 39 in 2004; Henry Aaron, who hit 40 at age 39 in 1973; Steve Finley, who hit 36 at age 39 in 2004; Darrell Evans, who hit 34 at age 40 in 1987; Willie Stargell, who hit 32 at age 39 in 1979; and Cy Williams, who hit 30 at age 39 in 1927.

Alex Rodriguez, who turned 40 on July 27, has 24 home runs and is also on pace for 30, which could make this only the second time in baseball history two players at such an advanced age hit 30 or more homers, joining Bonds and Finley in 2004.

Privately, Ortiz acknowledges that his surge will induce skepticism among those who point to a New York Times report in 2009 that said Ortiz and Red Sox teammate Manny Ramirez were among 100 players who had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003. MLB first tested players for steroids in 2003, and the results were supposed to be anonymous. The agreement between MLB and the players' association was that if a certain percentage of players tested positive, mandatory testing would begin the following season.

Ortiz has adamantly and repeatedly proclaimed that while some will always regard him as a PED cheater, that is not the case, and cites the fact he has never failed a drug test as evidence.

"Let me tell you something. Say whatever you want about me -- love me, hate me," Ortiz wrote back in March in an essay in the Players Tribune. "But I'm no bulls----er. I never knowingly took any steroids. If I tested positive for anything, it was for something in pills I bought at the damn mall. If you think that ruins everything I have done in this game, there is nothing I can say to convince you different."