Red Sox, Ortiz know the end is near

There've been a million unmistakable signs, like the swings and misses through mediocre fastballs, the weak ground balls to the right side, even the way opposing managers have stopped maneuvering around David Ortiz. The forensic evidence keeps bringing the Red Sox back to the same bleak conclusion: it's time to say goodbye to Big Papi.

This break-up is going to hurt, but Ortiz must know his release is coming. So does Terry Francona, as does Theo Epstein. The Sox have waited all month for Ortiz to find his bat-speed, but with a .160 average, four RBIs and 19 strikeouts in 50 at-bats, the former slugger has been unable to summon the beast who terrorized the American League from 2004-2007.

Today, Ortiz has been reduced to cheating on fastballs to hide his diminished reflexes -- which is the equivalent of Pavarotti lip-syncing at the opera. Starting a swing early, or guess-hitting, is an aging slugger's last resort and it's usually an embarrassing way to end a career.

Ortiz is connecting with only 76.2 percent of the pitches he swings at within the strike zone this year, which is 12 points bellow the major league average. Overall, Ortiz misses almost one out of every three pitches he attempts to hit, the lowest percentage of his career.

Then again, you hardly need numbers to confirm what the eyes of Red Sox Nation have been seeing for some time now. Ortiz has regressed to his early days with the Twins, except he's 34 going on 44, it seems. Ortiz used to be as thick and unmovable as an NFL lineman. Now he's just Ben and Jerry's thick, better suited for Sunday slow-pitch.

Of course, there's no shame in getting old, but Ortiz' decline seems too precipitous to be natural -- it's going to impact his legacy. The day Ortiz gets released, whether it's next week or next month, the revisionists will go to work on those monster years at Fenway.

Once we learned Ortiz's name was on the 2003 steroids list, it cast his entire golden era in a different light. Ortiz wasn't alone, of course. Manny Ramirez came up dirty, so did Barry Bonds, and all the evidence points to Roger Clemens, too. And don't forget Alex Rodriguez, who admitted to juicing during his days in Texas.

What will history say about A-Rod's inevitable coronation as the all-time home run champion? His record will never be clean or undisputed; it's a blemish Rodriguez will have to live with the for the rest of his career.

The same asterisk is likely to follow Ortiz. Those five good years in Boston, including his most productive ones from 2004-2007, might've been a chemical illusion. That's something Ortiz's conscience will have to someday sort out. What's certain is that from 04-'07, Ortiz just killed the Yankees, hitting .322.

In 2007, when the Sox were on their way to a second world championship in four years, Ortiz practically ended Joe Torre's reign in the Bronx, batting .358 against Yankee pitching.

The golden era numbers were so lopsided that in 2006 the Bombers acquired lefty specialist Mike Myers, a former teammate of Ortiz, for the sole purpose of neutralizing that massive uppercut of Papi's. When it become apparent midway through 2007 that Myers had no special antidote -- Ortiz batted .294 against him -- the southpaw was gone.

The Yankees have always acted as a barometer of Ortiz' greatness -- and his fall. During the season-opening series against the Bombers, when he was just 1-for-11, Ortiz suffered the greatest insult of all, having been practically ignored by Joe Girardi.

The Yankees abandoned their exaggerated infield shift of the past, as only second baseman Robinson Cano re-positioned himself deeper and closer to first base. But the Yankees knew that Ortiz's days as a dead-pull hitter were gone, which allowed them to keep Derek Jeter on the left side of second base and A-Rod anchored at third.

Girardi was so confident he could contain Ortiz's power he didn't even bother summoning a lefty in a close game on April 7. Instead, with the Yankees leading, 3-1, in the eighth inning, the manager allowed righty Chan Ho Park to face Ortiz.

"I liked the way Park was throwing," was Girardi's diplomatic explanation, even though the Fenway radar had the veteran's fastball at just 87 mph. No matter: Ortiz struck out.

Of course, the Sox could probably justify Ortiz's presence in the lineup if anyone else was hitting and if the won-loss record was a little healthier. But the peripheral factors are all working against Ortiz.

The Sox are eighth in the AL in runs, already six games out of first place. The Yankees, as expected, are playing well, but it's the Rays who have Epstein and Francona worried. They're atop the East with a .737 winning percentage, not to mention a plus-50 run differential.

The Sox are a minus-19, which is another way of saying it hasn't been a particularly good month. Only the Royals have allowed more runs in the AL, which means the Sox desperately need a more potent offense until their pitching is stabilized.

Naturally, the Sox will offer up the usual, respectful pronouncements about Ortiz's predicament: he slumped early last year, they'll remind us, and look how he ended up (28 homers, 99 RBIs). It's only April. Papi is a professional hitter. He'll figure it out.

Only, trained baseball eyes have seen the end coming since 2008. Ortiz has been like family for almost a decade, beloved by the entire Nation. But in a billion-dollar industry, the bottom line supersedes loyalty every time.

This is no revelation, as both Ortiz and the Sox know the end is here. No one has to say it -- the strikeouts have acted as one long man-hug goodbye. All that's left is the final press conference, which won't be easy for anyone.