Coming full circle

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- As their leader and teammate went into the biggest press conference of his life, a group of Red Sox players gathered around a television set in the visitors clubhouse at Yankee Stadium.

When David Ortiz sat in front of a packed room, telling the world he had never used steroids, Mike Lowell was watching from the clubhouse that August day -- the last time the Red Sox were at Yankee Stadium -- and said he felt a sense of anxiousness. Then, Lowell said, he felt relief that his friend had emerged relatively unscathed.

"I think he handled it great," Lowell said. "After the way he handled it, I was kind of questioning why the other guys [whose names have leaked] didn't handle it the way he did and lean on the union like he did."

Ortiz, flanked by union counsel Michael Weiner, responded to a report that he was on a list -- seized by the government -- of 104 players who tested positive in 2003 under Major League Baseball's pilot drug-testing program. Ortiz said he never used steroids, and that it might have been caused by taking supplements.

As he entered the room full of journalists at Yankee Stadium 10 days after The New York Times identified him and former teammate Manny Ramirez as being on the list, Ortiz said he did not feel nervous or anxious. Instead, Ortiz, who returns to Yankee Stadium on Friday for the first time since that weekend, felt anger; anger that his reputation was soiled by a leak, and by what he said was the media trying to make money.

"I was angry, I was really angry -- very angry," Ortiz told ESPNBoston.com before Thursday's game against the Royals. "It wasn't just because I was going to New York, it happened before I left [Boston]. Those [10 days] got me really angry because this thing has been going on for years."

The thing to which Ortiz refers is the ongoing coverage of steroids and baseball, and the leaking of names. Ortiz said he felt he had to be a leader, stand up in front of the media in New York, and tell his side -- even if it took more than a week, during which he sought clarification and guidance from the union, to do so. He still stands by his words from that day, saying that all he's ever done is take supplements, and that in the five years of drug testing, he has never tested positive.

"Because of this, we've got to be careful with [supplements], but that doesn't mean you're guilty because some [expletive] comes out and say something about you," Ortiz said at Kauffman Stadium. "People are going to believe what [the reporter] says. What about what I have to say? How about I've been tested 19 times and nobody has ever come to me and said nothing. That doesn't count? Those are real numbers. You know what I'm saying?"

The union staunchly defended Ortiz's right to privacy while citing its belief that there was erroneous math by the federal government: MLB and the union had only 96 tests possibly positive, and 13 of those were considered inconclusive. That raised the possibility that Ortiz was one of the inconclusive tests or one of eight players who are on the government's list but not on MLB's.

The day of the press conference his teammates stayed in the clubhouse, but manager Terry Francona was off to the side of the dais as a show of support, with team president Larry Lucchino in the back of the room. After Ortiz spoke, the Red Sox released a statement in full support of their slugger.

"I wasn't afraid at all; I got nothing to hide," Ortiz said. "I don't need no help from nobody. I didn't get a translator -- this is my second language. And I made clear what I felt, and what I had to say. I was angry. But I wasn't nervous because I had nothing to hide."

The timing of the press conference merged with an awful stretch in Boston's season. Lowell called it the team's low point. And for good reason. John Smoltz pitched poorly in the first game and was gone the next day, the team wasn't hitting, there was a revolving door of call-ups from Triple-A, and after a four-game sweep by the Yankees, the Red Sox had lost six straight in which they scored 14 runs -- and fell a then-season high 6½ games back in the division.

"We were having a tough time," Francona said. "We went [days] without scoring a run, we had different roster moves every day. We were just trying to piece it together and get through it.

"At that point, we were just trying to win a game, not get overwhelmed, and we didn't do a good enough job. But we rebounded when we left and started playing better."

Indeed, the Red Sox arrive on Friday one game better in the standings (5½) than when they left; their magic number in the wild-card race is 3; and they are in a much stronger position for the postseason.

Since leaving Yankee Stadium on Aug. 9, the Red Sox have hit .290 (second-best in the AL to the Yankees) with a major league-leading .862 OPS, while hitting a major league-leading .312 with runners in scoring position. Ortiz, too, has excelled since that time. After being swept in New York, Ortiz's average was down to .219 and he had a .716 OPS. Since then, he's hitting .286 with 11 homers and a .984 OPS. On Thursday, in a 10-3 win over the Royals, Ortiz went 3-for-5, hitting his 26th homer and running his RBI total to 91, a stunning accomplishment considering where he was just six weeks ago.

After Wednesday's win against the Royals, in which he hit his 25th homer -- the sixth time he's reached that mark while in Boston -- Ortiz said he knows his importance to the team.

"This is a team that definitely, when I do well, the team does well, it's been like that for years here," Ortiz said. "I'm not going to change whatever happened the first two months of the season. We're going to the playoffs and I know this ballclub needs me to keep on doing my thing."

But the chances of winning the division seem remote. Even if the Red Sox sweep, they will be 2½ games back with seven left to play. And while former Met Billy Wagner said earlier in the week he's looking forward to going into New York with the division still on the line, Lowell as a more realistic view.

"I think we're at a point right now ... you're almost in a must-sweep," Lowell said. "I'm not saying we can't sweep them -- we've gone in there and swept them before. But you almost have to win out."

Lowell said it's better to make sure pitchers like Jon Lester and Josh Beckett are rested and healthy going into the postseason rather than trying to win the rest of their games.

"We're hoping for too many factors that we can't control," Lowell said. "If we can control it, by all means, go for it. If we can't, I think we have to be intelligent."

But if they clinch a postseason berth without clarity about whether it's the division or the wild card, will they still celebrate?

"So we don't have to get our clubhouse dirty," Ortiz said with a smile on Thursday night. "And give a welcome to the new stadium, too."

Back in 2007, when the Red Sox clinched a playoff spot, they toasted glasses subtly. But that was because they had a healthy division lead and their sights were on the AL East title. This year, they're fighting just to make it in.

And now they are on the precipice, with the earliest possibility of clinching a berth on Saturday with Daisuke Matsuzaka pitching. It's in stark contrast from their last trip to the Bronx, when Ortiz was holding court about a steroid report and Matsuzaka was banished in Fort Myers, Fla., his return in question.

Nearly two months later, they may be faced with the choice to celebrate. So will they?

"Absolutely," Lowell said. "This will be my 11th year; I've only celebrated three times. That means seven times I've gone home. We deserve to celebrate. Why not? If it's [in New York] that's fine too.

"Just tell them to put extra [plastic] on their walls."

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com and ESPNBoston.com. You can reach her at amy.k.nelson@espn3.com or at twitter.com/amyknelson.