IN BASEBALL, October is the month when legacies are built or broken, and labels are bestowed. Just ask David Ortiz, whose dramatic heroics back in 2004 not only helped bring Boston a World Series title, but earned himself the title of “Greatest Clutch Hitter” in Red Sox history, as decreed by team ownership — and that clubhouse coronation came a full eight years before last Sunday, when his eighth-inning grand slam tied the second game of the ongoing American League Championship Series.
The plaque matches the perception of a fan base that, for most of a decade now, would rather nobody else be standing at home plate with the game hanging in the balance. They remember all the big hits, the big homers, the big moments where he’s been in the middle of everything.
And they forget that as Ortiz entered Thursday’s Game 5 his .067 average put him at risk of batting .235 or worse for the fourth time in his last five playoff series.
This reminder is not meant to disparage Ortiz’ career accomplishments, or to dispute the notion that he has been one of his generation’s best postseason performers. Neither of those can be taken away from him. Nor can the plaque. He deserved that, too.
Rather, the designated hitter’s more recent track record is relevant because it serves to remind that as the Red Sox and the rest of baseball’s best play out the postseason this October — establishing legacies and getting pinned with labels — the ability to perform in clutch situations isn’t always something that translates year to year, series to series, game to game, or even situation to situation.
It’s something that varies moment to moment, and while there are those who have come through in those spots time and again — like Ortiz — those players are still subject to the same failure as others. And while there is certainly value to a player embracing pressure, staying in calm control of his emotions, and managing his heart rate, ultimately playoff success is still decided on matchups, streaks, and slumps.
Ortiz is an example. Entering Thursday, the aforementioned grand slam was his only hit in the series, and his only hit in seven opportunities with runners in scoring position. Carlos Beltran is another example along the same lines, as the Cardinal slugger who has a 1.160 on-base plus slugging in 44 career playoff games added to his legend with a couple big hits along the way tonight’s National League Championship Series Game 6 — but is batting .176 in this round after hitting .222 in the last.
Similarly, people around here remember Curt Schilling’s two ALCS Game 6 performances with the Sox — blood staining his sock in 2004, then seven quality innings in 2007 — but they’ve probably forgotten that in his first start of each of those series he got knocked around pretty good. If Schilling eventually gets into the hall of fame, his postseason track record will be among the primary reasons.
But no matter how many highlights a player has on his playoff reel, it doesn’t guarantee anything. Heck, Mr. October himself, Reggie Jackson, finished six different AL championship series with a batting average under .200.
It doesn’t always make sense, but that’s part of what makes baseball’s final month so entertaining, so dramatic, so intriguing. Jake Peavy has been brutal in three of his four career playoff starts, but was great in the other against Tampa Bay. Mike Napoli carried the Rangers through the ALDS and World Series in 2011, but hit for no power and had just one RBI during the ALCS in between. David Freese, the Cardinal third baseman whose big hits probably prevented Napoli from winning a ring that season, has batted .192, .188, and .118 in St. Louis’ last three series.
It just goes to show that success comes and goes quickly in the postseason — precisely like it does the regular season, just under a brighter spotlight.
“To me, that’s what the 162 games are for,” Sox manager John Farrell said, “is to get the real pulse of the individual; how they do respond to some of those situations?” Even when that question is answered, though, nobody ever really knows exactly what to expect. There are instances where decent players like Marco Scutaro, Jose Lobaton, Pablo Sandoval and Delmon Young to make a major impact by coming through when it counts. There are instances where players as supremely confident as Dustin Pedroia struggle at the plate before mishandling a routine double play ball and breathing life into a Tiger rally like he did Wednesday.
There’s no question that with the game on the line, Pedroia wants to be in the batter’s box, or he wants the ball hit to him, and with that attitude he’s more apt to make the play than someone who’d rather be a spectator in the big moment. But sometimes the best players make errors. Sometimes they go through slumps. Sometimes — oftentimes — they fail, whether it’s April or October.
The difference is that in the latter of those months, legacies are formed as the labels start getting stuck to people. Choker. Clutch. Goat. Hero. Loser. Winner.
Ultimately, though, circumstances change and this October’s label won’t necessarily still fit next October when the postseason comes around again, and everybody’s tries in vain to predict what will happen — except for one: Champion.
That one’s permanent.
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.