By Sean McAdam
NEW YORK -- David Ortiz couldn't help but admire his handiwork in the fifth inning Tuesday night.
As soon as he connected for a majestic two-run homer, which landed in the right-field seats, Ortiz performed a little pirouette, then flipped his bat aside in celebration.
The homer gave the Red Sox a five-run lead over the New York Yankees, en route to their 6-4 victory. But Ortiz could have just as easily have been toasting his own return to form and what that means going forward.
Last fall, with more than a little trepidation, the Red Sox picked up Ortiz's one-year, 12.5 million option for this season.
At the time, they wondered whether Ortiz could match the sort of production he provided a year ago, when he hit 32 homers and knocked in 102 runs.
Their fears, it seems clear, were unfounded. Ortiz is not only performing better than he was last year, he's currently mashing the ball with the kind of power and consistency that he showed from 2004-06, when, with Manny Ramirez, he formed arguably the best middle-of-the-order combination in the game.
His .602 slugging percentage would be his highest since he slugged .621 in 2007.
His .324 batting average is his best since he batted .332, also in 2007.
His OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging) of .992 is his best in the last three seasons and higher than his career OPS of .922.
In short, at the ripe old age of 35, Ortiz has managed to turn back the clock. Improbably, he's feasting on left-handed hitting a stunning .355, a remarkable improvement over the .220 he hit against lefties last year.
Suddenly, the notion that the Sox would have to find someone to platoon with Ortiz in the DH spot seems laughable.
Both hitting coach Dave Magadan and manager Terry Francona agree there are two reasons for Ortiz's late-in-career renaissance: the ability to, again, take the ball the other way to left; and his newfound plate discipline which has seen him refuse to offer at pitches out of the strike zone.
Ortiz is swinging solely at strikes these days. After fanning a career-worst 145 times last season, Ortiz is on pace to cut his strikeouts in half, an incredible feat for anyone -- never mind a slugger supposedly in his waning years.
Though he and new teammate Adrian Gonzalez don't hit back-to-back in the Boston batting order -- they're separated by Kevin Youkilis for the sake of left-right balance -- Ortiz has certainly benefited by Gonzalez's arrival. The two began talking hitting in spring training and Ortiz credits his new teammate with helping him in his approach to lefties.
For the moment, Ortiz's superb first 10 weeks has solidified the Red Sox' lineup and made their offense one of the most feared in the league.
For the long-term, however, Ortiz's season poses a number of issues for the team.
It's likely that when the season began, Red Sox management envisioned this as Ortiz's last in Boston. Throughout the American League, the trend has been to move away from high-priced, veteran sluggers as full-time designated hitters and toward a rotation in which position players are kept fresh by serving as the DH once or twice per week.
But as long as Ortiz continues to produce at his current clip, can the Red Sox afford to let him go when his deal expires?
For Ortiz is not some bit player in the lineup, protected and enhanced by the presence of Gonzalez, Youkilis and others. Instead, he's a mainstay, without whom the Sox wouldn't be nearly as fearsome.
And at a time when offensive numbers are down across the board, and pitchers are again dominating, can the Red Sox really afford to lose a hitter who's on pace to deliver 39 homers?
Had Ortiz merely matched what he did a year ago, the Red Sox might have offered him a one-year deal -- at a reduced price, that is. Ortiz's countryman, Vladimir Guerrero, found out the hard way last winter the going rate for a successful but aging DH: he took 8.5 million on a one-year deal from the Baltimore Orioles.
Now, such a proposal to Ortiz would be laughable. Power is in too short supply to risk pushing Ortiz out the door and it's likely that, at the very least, the Red Sox will have to A) come close to matching Ortiz's current salary and B) offer some sort of vesting option, if not a guaranteed two-year deal.
Ortiz had made no secret of his desire to finish his career in a Red Sox uniform. It's likely he'll get his wish now, but that finish may come later than most expected, and, at a higher cost.