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David Ortiz knows chances of playoff return hinge on Red Sox's pitching

BOSTON -- David Ortiz was all set to lead off the bottom of the ninth inning Tuesday night at Fenway Park, with the Boston Red Sox trailing by one run against the Texas Rangers.

It was time for another classic Big Papi moment.

But closer Craig Kimbrel had a career-worst, four-run meltdown in another non-save situation, breaking open the game. Frustrated by no longer having a chance to tie it with one mighty swing, Ortiz lined a leadoff single and snapped his already broken bat over his knee like a twig as he jogged to first base.

Roughly 21 hours later, Ortiz walked to the plate again with two outs in a scoreless first inning of the series finale Wednesday night. He fouled off three of the first four pitches, then worked the count full against Rangers starter Martin Perez before lining a missile that cut through the humid air, over the bullpens and into the right-field bleachers.

Ortiz's 523rd career homer was worth the wait. It opened a two-run lead en route to an 11-6 Red Sox victory over the American League's best team. It was also his 20th homer of the season, marking the 15th year in a row he has reached that mark. According to Elias Sports Bureau research, the only players with at least that many consecutive 20-homer seasons are Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez.

Good company.

Even though it seems as if the home runs have come almost on-demand for Ortiz in what he insists will be his final season, it hasn't felt that way to him. Although the 40-year-old slugger is batting .337 with a best-in-the-majors 1.106 OPS and was the fans' overwhelming choice to be the AL's starting designated hitter in next Tuesday night's All-Star Game in San Diego, Ortiz is here to say it hasn't been as easy as it looks.

"[Tuesday] night, I felt like I was kind of using my bottom hand too much," he said. "But it happens. That's part of the game. That's why the season is so long. I like making adjustments real quick, real fast. You have to, otherwise you know how it is. Pitching is good right now, and you have to be on top of your game. That pitch [from Perez], I kind of started using my top hand and had better results."

Lately, the Red Sox have gotten better results, too. After a 10-16 June in which they slipped from first place in the AL East, they have won back-to-back series at home against the Los Angeles Angels and the Rangers. A series victory over the weekend at Fenway against the bottom-feeding Tampa Bay Rays would send the Red Sox into the All-Star break with some momentum in what figures to be a three-way fight with the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays for the division crown.

Ortiz's homer provided an early lead Wednesday night, but knuckleballer Steven Wright also did what so many other Red Sox starters have been unable to do: hold the opponent scoreless in the first inning. Wright gave up six runs, but all except one came after Boston seized an 11-1 lead. His primary objective at that point was to pound the strike zone.

Still, Ortiz knows the pitching -- specifically, a rotation that has a 4.82 ERA -- must improve if he's going to make one final postseason appearance before riding into retirement. Whether it's embattled lefty Eduardo Rodriguez returning to the rotation after his stint in Triple-A or president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski swinging a trade for a pitcher capable of starting Game 2 or 3 of a playoff series, the Red Sox need someone to help sustain the prolonged winning streaks.

"I know our pitching is going to get better," Ortiz said. "I'm 100 percent sure our pitching is going to get better for the second half of the season. We have great talent. It's all about making less mistakes."

And giving the high-powered Red Sox offense -- and Ortiz, in particular -- more chances to have meaningful at-bats, unlike the ninth inning Tuesday night.

"What people need to understand," Ortiz said, explaining his bat-breaking episode, "is that when we're playing, we're going through a lot of emotions. It's not that you're trying to embarrass anybody or show anybody up. It's just emotion that pops up, and that's what the game is."

Ortiz is only the 15th player ever to hit at least 20 homers in a season after turning 40. His 69 RBIs are the most by a player in his 40s since Bonds had 77 in 2006.

How good has Ortiz been? He's almost hazardous to his own health. His majors-leading 34 doubles have taken a toll on his feet and heels that ache so much; he spends hours in the training room each day in order to prepare to play.

"I'll be fine," Ortiz said. "I've been managing myself pretty well, and I got through the first half of the season and I feel good right now. So hopefully we'll be in the same situation the second half of the season."

Quite clearly, Ortiz is ready for one last run to October. He just needs his teammates to hop on board.