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Papi's streak ends, but legend is set in stone

Slugger's historic World Series stretch emblematic of Red Sox's season

ST. LOUIS -- There was a moment in the sixth inning on Monday night that said so much about these two teams and this World Series. This winter, when we roll this Fall Classic around in our hearts and minds, this single encounter might be one of the memories we cherish.

David Ortiz had reached base nine straight times when he stepped into the batter's box in the top of the sixth inning of a game his Red Sox would win, 3-1. They're close now, really close, leading the best-of-seven World Series, 3-2, as it returns to Fenway Park for Game 6 on Wednesday, airing at 7:30 p.m. ET on FOX with an 8:07 first pitch.

Meanwhile, Ortiz is shaping one of the great World Series performances any player has ever had. Isn't it funny how things work out? At 37, he began this season under a cloud of doubt about his ability to still produce at a high level.

Not that Ortiz had anything left to prove. After 17 seasons, including 11 with the Red Sox, he has long since established himself as a beloved teammate and one of the best hitters of his generation.

That's why Big Papi's 17th season might end up being one of his most satisfying as he has played at a high level while leading a team widely picked to finish last in the American League East to the threshold of a dream.

Ortiz is going to be remembered as one of the best players the Red Sox have ever had, a complete offensive player, a clutch performer, a guy who is at his best when the stakes are highest.

Inside his own clubhouse, Ortiz is seen as way more than that.

"This guy right here is the epitome of a superstar and a good teammate," Red Sox ace Jon Lester said. "And I don't think you could ever ask for more out of an individual than what he does on and off the field. The guy's got a heart of gold. And he goes out there every single night and competes."

Papi on an October tear
Highest batting average in a World Series
Rank Player Team Year Opp. BA
1. Billy Hatcher Cin. 1990 Oak. .750
2. David Ortiz Bos. 2013 Stl. .733
3. Babe Ruth NYY 1928 Stl. .625
4. Hideki Matsui NYY 2009 Phi. .615
5. Ricky Ledee NYY 1998 S.D. .600
5. Danny Bautista Ari. 2001 NYY .583
7. Ivey Wingo Cin. 1919 CWS .571
8. Chris Sabo Cin. 1990 Oak. .562
9. (tie) Lou Gehrig NYY 1928 Stl. .545
9. (tie) Hank Gowdy Bos. 1914 Phi. .545
Minimum 18 plate appearances or seven walks plus hits

Anyway, there was Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright, himself one of the game's great competitors, trying again in the sixth inning to get Ortiz out, refusing to concede an inch.

Isn't this why we love this stuff?

"I said, 'I'm not pitching around Ortiz,'" Wainwright would say later. "'I'm going to get him out.'"

Wainwright's manager, Mike Matheny, would say the same thing. As terrific as Ortiz has been in this World Series, the Cards have decided to challenge him.

And that's what Wainwright did in Game 5, throwing Ortiz his best stuff again and again. Ortiz answered with a run-scoring double off a cutter in the first inning and a single off a 91-mph fastball in the fourth.

And then the two squared off in a six-pitch at-bat in the sixth, with Ortiz fouling off a cutter, then getting three straight curveballs to run the count to 2-2. Ortiz fouled off a 93-mph fastball, and then Wainwright tried a curveball, the one that has been rated baseball's best.

And it worked. Ortiz lifted a fly ball to center field, making an out for the first time since the second inning of Game 3 on Saturday.

With that, Wainwright took just a moment to watch the ball settle into center fielder Shane Robinson's glove. And he mouthed a word that cameras caught.


Yes, wow.

Later, Ortiz said he didn't see Wainwright's reaction, but he has been in the arena long enough to respect the encounter these two respected old pros had just had.

"It's a battle when you face that kind of pitcher as good as he is, and as good as the rest of the pitchers that they have," Ortiz said. "I've been playing this game for too long, and when I go to the plate, I try to look for a strike. ... And that's pretty much what I've been doing all year."

Ortiz is turning this World Series into his own personal showcase. He had three more hits in all on Monday and has numbers that are mind-boggling. Ortiz is hitting .733 (11-for-15) with a .737 on-base percentage (14-for-19). Among players with at least 10 World Series plate appearances, only Cincinnati's Billy Hatcher has better numbers (.750 batting average and .800 on-base percentage in 1990).

Ortiz has raised his career World Series batting average to .476, best among players with at least 50 plate appearances.

When Ortiz was asked the usual question about whether he has had a hot streak as good as this one, he said: "I did it like 20 times this year."

Cue the laughter.

Sitting beside him, Lester said, "That pretty much sums it up."

"I was born for this," Ortiz added.

Now the Red Sox are headed back to their little ballpark, where they have a chance to clinch a World Series at home for the first time since 1918.

"It's a tough spot when you get to 3-2, because you know you're close," Ortiz said. "That's the biggest challenge. You've got to come back on Wednesday and continue playing the way we have."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
Read More: Boston Red Sox, David Ortiz