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Clutch Treat

Some players just have a knack for late-inning heroics, and no one does it better than Boston's `Big Papi'

July 13, 2006|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

Nearly five years later, Luis Gonzalez can close his eyes and return to that early November night.

He can locate the baseball high in Mariano Rivera's fingers, track its path to his bat, feel himself change its course.

And the thought returns, as it has almost every day since.

"I can't believe this is happening to me."

He sees the glory of it still, going on those five years, amused and grateful that it lingers in his memory, and in his hands, and that he has been allowed to take it with him.

Gonzalez won the 2001 World Series with a single in the bottom of the ninth inning of the seventh game. It beat Rivera and the New York Yankees, in his ballpark, in a city that hadn't seen that sort of thing before.

"Floater!" the television guy had shouted. "Center field ... the Diamondbacks ... are world champions!"

By now, Gonzalez is fairly certain he has heard from every person in the ballpark that night, shook their hands, learned what it looked like from the box seats, the top deck, the right-field bleachers.

It is the nature of the clutch performance, which baseball most efficiently refined to a pitcher and a batter and one last chance, and then its life span.

Over 16 days in June, David Ortiz ended three games with three flashes of his bat. A three-run home run beat the Rangers on June 11, a two-run home run beat the Phillies on June 24, and two days later a 12th-inning single beat the Phillies again.

In his career, he has ended 10 regular-season games with walk-off hits. He did it three times in a single postseason for the 2004 Red Sox. Within the game, Ortiz -- Boston's round, affable Big Papi -- has become the preeminent hitter when the air is still, and the outs are few, and the curfew is near.

"Extra innings," Ortiz said with a grin. "I don't like to play extra innings."

It has become a major league phenomenon, and A.J. Pierzynski first witnessed it in Fort Myers, Fla. First game of their Class-A season together, extra innings beckoning, Ortiz won it with a home run.

"That was the start of his legend growing," Pierzynski said. "He enjoys it. He enjoys the moment. He enjoys the pressure. Game on the line, there's nobody I'd rather have up there than David, since A-ball. By far he's the best guy in the clutch."

They all have their shots at it, of course. It is the nature of the batting order, the managers' preferences, the pitchers' courage, all contained in a sport where a few outs a game can still amount to overall excellence, yet one mistimed pop-up can amount to career-defining failure.

While the consensus is that most -- if not all -- clutch hitters are good hitters, it is unanimous that not all good hitters are clutch hitters.

Rivera buried his share of both during 23 consecutive postseason saves between Game 4 of the 1997 AL division series and Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, and still does.

"There are a lot of great hitters," he said, "but not a lot of clutch hitters."

Put another way, Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon Webb said, "A good hitter, he'll hit a home run in the ninth inning down 15 runs. But if he comes up in a one-run ballgame with a guy on third base, he can't get him home. That's the difference."

Sandy Alomar Jr. homered against Rivera in the 1997 playoffs, he and Gonzalez accounting for the blown saves bracketing those 23 successes for Rivera, and those three World Series titles for the Yankees.

As he stood in the box in the ninth inning of Game 4, the Indians a run down, Alomar remembered to take a breath. While he did, he recalled something Rod Carew once told him.

"Whenever you face a closer with a dominant fastball," he thought, "always think high. You can react low."

On the brink of elimination when Alomar swung, the Indians instead went on to eliminate the Yankees, and eventually advance to the World Series.

"Believe it or not," he said, "I remembered that in that at-bat. I said, 'I'm going to do what Rod told me.' And I tomahawked that ball. I was like, 'Wow, look what I did!' "

As Ortiz advanced his celebrity for hitting in the clutch, and as Ryan Zimmerman began to show a similar knack for the Washington Nationals, and as Nomar Garciaparra was reborn in Los Angeles, and even as Michael Young tripled home two runs with one strike left against Trevor Hoffman in Tuesday night's All-Star game, big hits are big as ever in the big leagues.

"To do it on this stage is a lot of fun, something I'll never forget," Young said. "I think that's why it's so rewarding to come through right now."

The game's best hitters, recognized as such for their production in game situations extreme and routine, believe the hits come because they expect success, dismiss failure, and wait their turns to hit again. And then they let the moment carry them.

Though his "clutch" statistics are down this season -- .280 with runners in scoring position (38th in the majors) and .295 with two out and runners in scoring position (10th), compared to .352 and .368 last season -- Ortiz remains the standard.

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