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David Ortiz just might be putting together one of the greatest final seasons in major league history, and what he did Saturday afternoon at Fenway Park in Boston's 6–5 win over the Astros could very well stand as one of the signature performances of that historic season. At the very least, it was Ortiz’s best showing thus far this season, in terms of his raw production and its impact on the game.
Things started out slowly. Ortiz walked in his first plate appearance and the Astros jumped out to a 5–1 lead on a George Springer grand slam off Clay Buchholz in the top of the second inning. In his second time up, with one out and no one on in the bottom of the third, Ortiz hit a towering home run over the Red Sox’s bullpen off Astros starter Collin McHugh to cut Houston's lead to 5-3. The Red Sox picked up another run in the fourth, but Houston took a 5–4 lead into the bottom of the ninth.
It was with two outs in the bottom of the ninth that Ortiz came up against Astros closer Luke Gregerson with the tying run on first base in the form of Xander Bogaerts. Ortiz fouled off Gregerson’s first pitch, then proceeded to ruin the right-hander’s 32nd birthday by golfing a sinker that was diving out of the zone to the warning track, in front of the 379-foot sign in the left-field gap, well out of the reach of the dive of centerfielder Jake Marisnick. After scrambling to his feet, Marisnick took a moment to locate the ball, giving the lumbering Ortiz an opportunity to haul into third base with a game-tying triple, his first three-base hit since June 15, 2013.
Ortiz's hit was immediately followed by Hanley Ramirez’s inexplicable decision to try to bunt home a winded Ortiz with two outs. Ramirez claimed after the game that he saw the defense back and thought if he could just get a bunt past the pitcher on the first-base side Ortiz could have scored easily. That’s questionable, at best, but Ramirez’s bunt was a complete dud that didn’t even leave the dirt in front of home plate, making Ramirez the easy final out of the inning.
Of course, if Ramirez had actually succeeded in winning the game in the ninth, Ortiz wouldn’t have gotten the chance to put the capper on his afternoon. Big Papi’s next plate appearance came in the bottom of the 11th, again with two outs and Bogaerts on first base. This time Michael Feliz was on the mound for Houston. Feliz’s 1-2 pitch to Ortiz was wild, sending Bogaerts to second. His 2-2 pitch was a changeup away that Ortiz hit just to the left of the 420 sign in centerfield, again beyond Marisnick’s reach, for a walk-off double.
Add it all up, and Ortiz went 3-for-5 with three extra-base hits, nine total bases, and three runs batted in including the game-tying RBI with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and the game-winning RBI with two outs in the bottom of the 11th. It was Ortiz’s third three-hit game of the season and fourth three-RBI game of the season, both matching season highs, as well as his season high for extra-base hits and total bases in a single game thus far this year.
And to add to it, each of those three hits was significant in its own way. The triple, I already mentioned, was his first in nearly three years. The home run was the 513th of his career, putting him one ahead of Ernie Banks and Eddie Mathews on the all-time list (next up, a trio of Hall of Famers including some guy named Ted Williams at 521). The double, meanwhile, was the 600th of Ortiz’s career, making him the 15th major leaguer to reach that milestone, and just the second to collect both 600 doubles and 500 home runs in his career. The other two men to do so are Barry Bonds and Hank Aaron.
So, it's still very early, but where does Ortiz’s performance thus far rank among the greatest final seasons in major league history? The highest OPS+ by a qualified hitter in his final major league season was 172 by Shoeless Joe Jackson in 1920. Prior to his big afternoon on Saturday, Ortiz had a 175 OPS+ on the season, which ranked fifth in the majors among qualified batters. Jackson isn’t really a fair comparison, because he was 32 years old during his final season and still in his prime, his career coming to an end when he was banned from organized ball for allegedly throwing the 1919 World Series. Ortiz is 40. Looking past Jackson, the highest final-season OPS+ by a qualified batter over the age of 35 was Will Clark’s 145 in 2000, which also ranks as the second-highest by a qualified hitter of any age since the start of the twentieth century. Prior to this season, only one qualified hitter over the age of 40 managed an above-average OPS+ in his final season. That was Kenny Lofton, who had a 105 OPS+ at the age of 40 in 2007 but couldn’t find a team for 2008. Ortiz isn’t guaranteed to surpass any of those marks, but if he stays healthy, he looks like a good bet to at least rival Clark’s figure. Of course, if he does that, you can be sure we’ll revisit this topic in September.