Three walk-offs in 11 days: How Big Papi built his legend

Written by: Justin Alpert

David Ortiz enjoyed an explosive first season in Boston in 2003, hitting .288 with 31 home runs, 101 RBI and a fifth-place finish in American League MVP voting. But regular season numbers only meant so much to the Red Sox, whose championship drought stretched back to 1918 and whose October shortcomings had haunted generations of fans.

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The 2003 postseason wasn’t kind to Ortiz. In 12 games, the last of which included the Red Sox’s Game 7 defeat to Aaron Boone and the Yankees, Boston’s left-handed slugger hit .192 and struck out in nearly a third of his at-bats.

But Ortiz reached a new level in 2004 — 41 home runs and 139 driven in — and alongside Manny Ramírez powered the Sox to another postseason. Facing the Angels in the Division Series, Ortiz reached base in seven of 10 plate appearances as Boston dominated Games 1 and 2 in Anaheim. Back at Fenway for Game 3 on Oct. 8, a 6-1 lead disappeared in the seventh inning thanks to Vladimir Guerrero’s game-tying grand slam.

The contest remained tied when Ortiz, already 3-for-5 on the day, came to bat with two outs in the 10th inning. Angels manager Mike Scioscia pulled All-Star reliever Francisco Rodríguez, who had recorded eight outs, in favor of lefty Jarrod Washburn — a starter all season and the loser of Game 1.

“We thought it was pretty clear that it was the best way for us to go,” Scioscia told The Boston Globe. “We felt great, bringing in Wash.”

Scioscia’s decision proved to be the wrong one with just one pitch, a middle-middle slider which Ortiz muscled over the Green Monster. The walk-off blast nullified Boston’s seventh-inning collapse, finalized an ALDS sweep and granted the Red Sox another shot at New York in the Championship Series.

“Slugger has become the resident bigshot,” The Globe’s headline read of Ortiz, who had just hit his third walk-off homer in two seasons with the Sox.

The Globe’s Bob Ryan reflected on how Boston had even acquired Ortiz in the first place. “With almost every passing day, it seems more and more amazing that he is even here,” Ryan wrote. “The man was neither traded for nor purchased. The man had been released, as in let go, by the Minnesota Twins. Whatever money issues there may have been, could he not have fetched something in a deal?”

“It’s pretty sweet,” Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein told The Globe. “Now we have two more celebrations to go.”

Nine days later, it didn’t appear there’d be another celebration, let alone two, for the 2004 Red Sox. The Yankees led the ALCS 3-0 after a 19-8 laugher in Game 3, and a two-run sixth inning in Game 4 had them on the verge of their sixth pennant in seven years. Mariano Rivera, having converted 32 of 35 save opportunities to that point in his postseason career, entered and pitched a scoreless eighth. 

But the next inning, Kevin Millar’s walk, Dave Roberts’ stolen base and Bill Mueller’s single tied the game at four. Up to bat with the bases loaded, Ortiz popped out. However, three innings of scoreless relief by Alan Embree, Mike Myers and Curt Leskanic meant Big Papi would get another opportunity in the 12th.

Having extended Boston's season for at least another night, David Ortiz admired his walk-off blast on Oct. 18, 2004. (Rich Pilling/MLB Photos)

Ortiz had failed to come through versus the future Hall of Fame closer and his signature pitch, a 93 mph cutter in on the hands, but he wouldn’t miss an 88 mph sinker from righty Paul Quantrill. Boston’s budding superstar deposited it into the visitors’ bullpen and, at least for a few hours, saved the season. The walk-off ended a 5-hour, 2-minute contest at 1:22 a.m., with Game 5 scheduled to start 16 hours later.

“It is still three games to one for the Yankees,” wrote Mike Lupica in Daily News. “They can still win the team’s 40th pennant today. They already had one chance today. Couldn’t close the deal. David Ortiz wouldn’t let his team die.”

“You could see that Ortiz was a good hitter in Minnesota,” Yankees manager Joe Torre said between games. “But he had holes. Now there are no holes, and he is a lot stronger.”

Game 5 that evening was a showdown of future Hall of Famers: Mike Mussina and Pedro Martínez. Both lasted six innings, with Mussina yielding two runs and Martínez four.

Ortiz narrowed the deficit to 4-3 with a solo shot in the eighth before Boston got baserunners on the corner, prompting another early entrance by Rivera. Jason Varitek’s sacrifice fly dealt Rivera his second blown save in as many games and pushed Game 5 to extras.

Big Papi struck again in the 14th inning, blooping an inside pitch from Esteban Loaiza into center field to score Johnny Damon and stave off elimination yet again. For Ortiz, it was the second walk-off hit that day and third in an 11-day span.

“It was downright Boggsian,” The Globe’s Ryan wrote of Ortiz’s 14th-inning at-bat, referring to five-time AL batting champion Wade Boggs, “and it testifies to the type of hitter he has become. For Loaiza was pitching not just well, but downright brilliantly.”

“Ortiz, who went 3-for-6, probably didn’t need to say a word,” wrote the late Nick Cafardo, the 2020 BBWAA Career Excellence Award winner. “Superlatives were flying all over the place. It felt like a champagne celebration sans the champagne.”

The Red Sox would soon get their fill of champagne, winning Games 6 and 7 in New York before sweeping St. Louis in the World Series. Ortiz, a no-brainer as the ALCS MVP, finished the postseason hitting .400 with five home runs, 19 RBI and his three walk-offs. The former castoff was establishing himself as one of the game’s greatest clutch hitters, as well as an international icon.

“In the baseball-mad Dominican Republic, David Ortiz is stepping out of the long shadow cast by Red Sox compatriots Manny Ramírez and Pedro Martínez,” wrote The Globe. “The player popularly known as Big Papi has emerged as a national hero, capturing everyone’s imagination.”

Ortiz was the offensive catalyst for two more championship teams in Boston: 2007, when he hit .370 with three home runs in 14 postseason games, and 2013, when five home runs, 13 RBI and a .500 on-base percentage over Boston’s 16-game run culminated in World Series MVP honors.

Boasting incredible offensive numbers across 20 seasons and an unrivaled knack for clutch hits, Ortiz was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2022.

Justin Alpert was a digital content specialist for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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