BOSTON - What's up with Big Papi?

That might be the most frequently asked question in New England these days as Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz battles through a hellacious slump.

"It's been hard on him," Boston manager Terry Francona said. "He's handling it better. He knows we need him. We've gotten a lot of pats on the back the last six years because of him, so the best thing I can do is be patient with him."

Ortiz, who led the American League with 54 homers in 2006 and averages 35 over a 162-game season, didn't hit his first this season until May 20. He entered last night hitting .196 with just three homers and 24 RBIs in 53 games. His slugging percentage was .319, way off his career mark of .544.

The 33-year-old Ortiz was recently treated for dry eyes.

Red Sox fans have remained patient and supportive of their beloved designated hitter. He hit a 410-foot fly ball to center - a homer in many parks - on Wednesday night and received a standing ovation at Fenway Park.

Ortiz's bat appears to be warming. He hit his third home run in nine games last night.

There is no designated hitter in National League parks. In interleague and World Series games, Ortiz has often played first base in NL cities. He took ground balls at first base this week, but Francona was undecided if Ortiz would get playing time at the position as the Red Sox visit the Phillies for three games beginning tonight. Boston first baseman Kevin Youkilis entered last night ranked second in the AL in batting average (.350) and first in combined on-base and slugging percentage (1.109).

"It's hard to sit Youk right now," Francona said.