Napoli's hot streak coming at perfect time for Sox
Slugger belts mammoth homer, scores decisive Game 5 run on wild pitch
DETROIT -- The Red Sox have been talking about how a well-timed Mike Napoli streak could be just the thing to kick their offense into gear. With Boston now just a victory from the World Series, he's picking the perfect time to get hot.
Napoli crushed a 460-foot home run to dead center field, one of his three hits for the evening, and contributed both on the basepaths and in the field as the Red Sox defeated the Tigers, 4-3, in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series.
"We've talked about some streakiness. He's in one of those good streaks right now," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "Like I've said, he has the ability to carry us."
No one needs much of a reminder about Napoli's sizzling performance in the 2011 postseason with the Rangers; suffice it to say that if Texas had been able to hold off the Cardinals, Napoli probably would have a World Series MVP Award stashed somewhere in his home.
With the series returning to Fenway Park for Game 6 on Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET on FOX, or 8 p.m. ET if the National League Championship Series ends Friday), the Red Sox are nine innings of good baseball away from giving Napoli a second chance at Fall Classic honors. Napoli didn't contribute much in the first round against the Rays, but the Red Sox are thrilled to see his swing now looking a lot more lethal.
"Of course I want to get back there, but I'm not getting too far ahead of ourselves here," Napoli said. "We take one game at a time and try to win that day. We're in a good position now, but we've still got business to take care of. A big game coming up. We'll go out there and just play, play the way we do."
Napoli's Game 3 home run off Justin Verlander accounted for the only run in Boston's 1-0 victory. Napoli one-upped that in the second inning Thursday with a tape-measure blast off Anibal Sanchez that landed in a rarely-reached area of Comerica Park.
"It's a big yard to go deep in that park, and he made this yard look small with that swing," pitcher Jon Lester said.
Napoli followed that by rapping a double in the third and singling in the fifth, giving him a chance at a cycle before striking out in the eighth.
"I've been feeling good all series," said Napoli, who improved to 6-for-16 (.375) in the five games against Detroit and leads Boston with 14 total bases. "I can't really put my finger on it. I'm just going up there trying to give a tough at-bat every time. I got some pitches that I could handle."
Farrell said that he was impressed by Napoli's heads-up play to score from third base on a Sanchez wild pitch in the third. That brought home Boston's fourth run, which gave the Sox a 4-0 lead at the time, but proved to be the decisive run in the win.
"To me, equal to the home run was his baserunning tonight," Farrell said. "He gets the double. He goes and advances on a throw on a [Jonny Gomes] tapper back to the mound, and his instincts on the wild pitch -- it ended up being a difference maker tonight."
Napoli said that third-base coach Brian Butterfield had been in his ear to be watching for a pitch in the dirt, and that the Red Sox have hammered home how 90 feet can be the difference in a game.
"I'm always ready," Napoli said. "It's a weird play. Some of that rarely happens, but you've always got to be ready for it."
In nearly all facets, Napoli has given the Red Sox just what they were looking for when they chased him. To roll the clock back to December, Napoli agreed to a three-year, $39 million deal with Boston, but it was pulled off the table when a physical revealed a degenerative hip condition.
Instead, Napoli signed a one-year, $5 million deal that swelled to $13 million with incentives, as he batted .259 with 23 homers and 92 RBIs in 139 games. Just as importantly, Napoli did an excellent job of transforming himself from a catcher into a capable defensive first baseman.
"I said this in Spring Training -- he's the complete opposite of what I thought he was," Lester said. "I thought he was a pretty vocal guy, playing against him on the other side. Just watching him, I thought he was more talkative, just all the way around.
"But the guy, it's unbelievable to see him go about his work every day. Guy worked his butt off in Spring Training to be an unbelievable first baseman for us this year."
Farrell said that he couldn't say Napoli has surpassed Boston's expectations coming into the deal, "but clearly he's transitioned flawlessly."
What comes next is anyone's guess. Napoli refuses to peer into the near future, when he might get another crack at free agency. Why waste any energy on that? Right now, Napoli is exactly where he wants to be, clicking into a zone just at the right time.
"I mean, I'm confident," Napoli said. "Coming to the series I was feeling good; had a little rough start. But my swing felt good. I'm always confident when I'm in the box."