For years, the Red Sox have searched for hitters with a swing that could best take advantage of the quirky dimensions at Fenway Park.
It is a quest that has met with varying degrees of success. In December 2010, when the Red Sox obtained Adrian Gonzalez from the San Diego Padres, they were positive he would flourish in Boston because of his history of hitting the ball powerfully to the opposite field.
Gonzalez hit .334 in two seasons at Fenway but only 19 of his hits were home runs before he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The first baseman who replaced him, Mike Napoli, arrived with similar hopes. He was a .306 hitter at Fenway in his career with seven home runs, one for every 8.9 at-bats.
Gonzalez left Boston muttering about the left-field wall being too high for his line drives. But Napoli, who swings with a determined uppercut, seems to like it just fine.
Napoli’s grand slam over the wall in the fifth inning was the decisive hit Monday night as the Red Sox beat the Oakland Athletics, 9-6, before a crowd of 28,926.
Napoli’s five RBIs gave him a major league-best 25 in 19 games for the Sox. He is 11 of 36 at Fenway this season with five doubles, two home runs, and 12 RBIs in 10 games.
Manny Ramirez, a hitter who flourished at Fenway, holds the team record with 31 RBIs in April. With seven games left, Napoli has a shot at it.
Napoli’s 14 extra-base hits and 25 RBIs are the most for a Red Sox player through 19 games going back to at least 1916.
“He’s doing exactly what we hoped he would do,” manager John Farrell said. “It’s great to see that production in the middle of the order. I’d hate to think where we’d be without him.”
The Sox scored 10 runs in their three games against Kansas City over the weekend, losing twice. They had nine runs by the fifth inning Monday night against Oakland starter A.J. Griffin (2-1).
It started in the second inning when David Ortiz and Napoli had back-to-back doubles. Ortiz ran the bases like he was wearing glass shoes on his sore feet. But he made his way around.
The fourth inning may have been an important one for slumping Will Middlebrooks, who hit a three-run homer with the Sox trailing, 2-1.
The third baseman had been 4 for his previous 44 with one RBI. But this time he belted a hanging slider and it quickly disappeared into the Monster seats.
“I’m still not where I want to be,” Middlebrooks said. “But I felt like I put some better swings on balls today and stuck with my approach.”
Middlebrooks now has five home runs and 10 RBIs on the season. Perhaps the buzz cut he got before the game changed his luck.
“I guess so,” he said. “I’m going to tip the barber a little better. I wore different shoes. I ate different. Anything you can think, I tried to flip-flop.”
The Sox sent 11 batters to the plate in the fifth inning and scored five runs.
Shane Victorino, back in the lineup after missing two games with a sore lower back, started it with a single to right field. Dustin Pedroia followed with a grounder to third base. When Josh Donaldson threw to second base, Andy Parrino bobbled the ball and Victorino was safe.
Ortiz drew a walk to load the bases. Napoli was next and he sent a low fastball to center field, where it landed in the first row of the seats on the wall.
Napoli was looking for a sacrifice fly considering his left arm was still tingling after being hit by a pitch in the previous inning.
“My arm went numb. It kind of freaked me out a little bit,” he said.
Napoli is 11 for his last 29, raising his batting average from .220 to .278. He has worked over the last two weeks to make his swing more compact. Being quicker to the plate has led to the RBI binge.
“First couple of series I wasn’t feeling too good,” he said. “I went into the cage and practiced staying closed and being short to the ball.”
Napoli has underplayed his prior success at Fenway Park, saying it was too small of a sample size to read much into. But it did mean something to the Red Sox when they were remaking their roster over the winter.
“What he’s done in this ballpark over the course of his career, those things are beacons when you go to look to select a player,” Farrell said. “He’s a very good fit here.”
Said Napoli: “I’ve been feeling good on the road, too. But I love hitting [at Fenway]. You’ve got the wall right there and you can get away with some stuff. You don’t necessarily have to hit it so good. It’s definitely fun hitting here.”
Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who tried to come up with ways to get Napoli out before they became teammates, said he is hard to pitch to.
“He has a great idea at the plate,” Saltalamacchia said. “There’s pitches that look like they’re going to be balls and he still hits them. It’s a tough guy to pitch around. We tried for years.”
Felix Doubront (2-0) pitched into the seventh inning for the win, allowing three runs on three hits and striking out eight. Junichi Tazawa left two runners stranded in the eighth inning after Oakland scored three runs against Clayton Mortensen. Andrew Bailey closed out the game against his former team for his fourth save in five chances.
The Sox were 1-8 against Oakland last season, losing the last eight games. It was the longest losing streak for the Sox against the Athletics franchise since 1932 when the team was in Philadelphia.