PAWTUCKET — The good news coming out of McCoy Stadium on Thursday afternoon was that rehabbing Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, who had struggled at the plate in his first five games with the Pawtucket Red Sox, smacked a home run leading off the sixth inning of the PawSox’s game against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs.
But aside from that, and a four-run rally in that inning by the PawSox that tied the contest at 5-5, there wasn’t much else to smile about on the homefront.
No. 9 batter Tyson Gillies’s three-run homer with two outs in the top of the seventh broke the tie, and a six-run uprising two innings later helped lead the visiting IronPigs to a 14-5 victory and a split of their four-game series with the PawSox at McCoy Stadium.
While the game was an entertaining one for the 5,717 on hand, the buzz around the park was Ortiz’s home run, which came on a 1-0 pitch – a 90-mph fastball by reliever Michael Stutes – and hit the scoreboard in right field just over the IronPigs’ bullpen.
“I’ve been getting more comfortable, more comfortable,” said Ortiz, who had gone 10 at-bats without a hit, “and that’s me when I’m comfortable.”
Prior to that blast, Ortiz was in a rut, going 3-for-17 in his rehab stint with six strikeouts and no extra-base hits or walks. He whiffed twice swinging in his first two at-bats against southpaw prospect Adam Morgan, who fanned Ortiz with a 94-mph fastball in the first inning and a 95-mph heater in the third.
“He threw hard,” added PawSox manager Gary DiSarcina. “He commanded his fastball down in the zone. He went right after (Ortiz) in his first at-bat. He threw a 1-0 change-up and got him to swing through that. He threw really well. He kept us off-balanced and he threw strikes.”
“He threw the ball pretty good,” Ortiz said of Morgan. “There were some times (during the rehab stint) when I could have walked, but my idea was to try to put the ball in play so I could run and see how this feels. I got the chance to taste that and swing a bat and it felt good.”
All signs point to the Red Sox activating Ortiz, who was placed on the disabled list with his ailing heels, today in time for their series opener against the Kansas City Royals at Fenway Park. To make room for him, rookie outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. is expected to be sent down to either the PawSox or Double-A Portland.
Still, some questions were surrounding Ortiz as he left the PawSox’s clubhouse after the top of the ninth inning. Does he feel like he’s ready to return to Major League action for the first time in eight months? And does he feel like he can play on a daily basis?
“Yeah, I think so,” he replied. “I’m old enough to know what I need to do, and my main key was to make sure that my feet were fine. … I may need a day off once in a while, but hopefully, it doesn’t have to be that way all year. Hopefully, at one point, I’ll say, ‘Okay, I’m 100 percent now, so let’s get going.’ ”
“I was sitting next to him on the bench and I asked him how he was feeling and he said he was feeling fine,” said DiSarcina. “His main concerns are his lower legs, but he’ll be fine. The best part of the whole time having him down here is that he left healthy.”
Luckily for Ortiz, he will be heading back to a team that entered Thursday’s night series finale in Cleveland against the Indians with a 10-4 mark and the top spot in the A.L. East standings, not one that is struggling and in dire need of an impact bat in its lineup.
“I love it,” he said, before adding with a smile, “That’s less pressure for me. Now I know I can take my time to do my thing and not try to do too much and carry the team on my back. The team is playing well, and hopefully, it continues so that will make it easier on me.”
While Ortiz’s homer was one of the stories of the afternoon, so was the solid pitching of Morgan, who was tabbed by Baseball America as the No. 5 prospect in the Philadelphia Phillies’ organization.
Morgan, who has a 1.42 ERA in three starts and won the International League Pitcher of the Week honors last week, worked five innings, striking out four batters, walking three, and allowing a pair of fourth-inning hits and a third-inning run on a groundout by Jeremy Hazelbaker.
Unfortunately for Morgan, he threw 100 pitches during his five innings and was forced to give way to Stutes, who promptly surrendered Ortiz’s home run and four straight hits that allowed the PawSox to knot the score.
Brandon Snyder followed Ortiz with a ringing double to right, and after a single to left by Mark Hamilton put runners on the corners, Mitch Maier knocked in Snyder with a hustle double into the gap in right-center and Hamilton raced home a few pitches later on a wild pitch.
Jose Iglesias then tied the contest with a line double to left-center, but surprisingly for the PawSox, that would be their last hit of the contest. Stutes, Joe Savery, and Jake Diekman teamed up to retire 12 of the hosts’ last 13 batters, allowing only a walk to Jonathan Diaz leading off the ninth.
Another story was Rubby De La Rosa’s third start of the season, which certainly wasn’t the charm for him or the PawSox. The prized prospect, who was acquired in last August’s megatrade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, only lasted two innings and departed after a shaky second inning left the PawSox down by a 4-0 score.
De La Rosa cruised through his first inning of work, retiring the side on a dozen pitches and striking out No. 3 batter Cody Asche with a 94 mph cutter, but after retiring his first batter in the second on a long flyout to center, things began to unravel for the righthander.
He issued a four-pitch walk to Cody Overbeck, and after a fielder’s choice grounder by Pete Orr erased Overbeck for the second out, Orr stole second and Steve Susdorf slapped an opposite-field double down the left-field line to score Orr with the day’s first run.
De La Rosa then walked the bottom two batters in the lineup, Steven Lerud and Gillies to load the bases for Jermaine Mitchell, who ripped a 1-2 offering down the right-field line and into the corner for a bases-clearing triple and a 4-0 command.
“He looks like he’s just throwing out there,” DiSarcina said of De La Rosa, who threw just 24 of his 46 pitches for strikes and owns an inflated 13.50 ERA in 6 2/3 innings of work. “I think he needs to get to the point where his mindset is more pitching. You can throw 96 mph, but these guys are going to hit it, and [Lehigh Valley] has a pretty good hitting team over there at the Triple-A level.
“I just think he needs to be a little more efficient with his pitches. Talking with (pitching coach) Richie (Sauveur), he needs to be down in the zone a little bit more and pitch, not get out there and throw. But he’ll learn. He’s kind of been repeating the same mistakes, and now it’s time for him to adjust and pitch.”
After De La Rosa exited the game, Jeremy Kehrt worked the third inning, but he didn’t fare any better. He gave up singles to three of the first five batters he faced, including a two-out base hit to left by Susdorf that drove in Asche and made it a 5-0 game.
The PawSox eventually tied the score, but the IronPigs untied it on Gilles’ home run and broke the game open with their ninth-inning rally. The big blast of the inning was a grand slam home run by Overbeck.
“We know what they’re all about,” said DiSarcina. “That’s a very good team. They have good speed and good power, and they’ve gotten some really good pitching the last couple of nights. They’re tough to play against.”
The PawSox will be on the road for their next eight games before returning to McCoy on April 27 to kick off an eight-game homestand. The first stop on their road trip is a four-game stop in Rochester against the Red Wings that begins tonight at 7:05 p.m.