TORONTO — You could have been watching down under in Australia, underwater on a submarine, or on a spaceship on the moon and you had to know how good the Red Sox’ Mike Napoli felt Wednesday night when, in his fourth at-bat after going 0 for 3 and being mired in a 6-for-53 slump, hit a tying two-run homer in the ninth inning vs. Brett Cecil and the Blue Jays.
Napoli, who has 15 homers and 69 RBIs after the blast, drove in Jonny Gomes with his high fly to right field that kept sailing, right into the bleachers, and tied the game at 3. The Sox ended up losing, 4-3, in 10 innings.
All eyes have been on Napoli because of his high strikeout totals (he entered the game with 158 to lead the American League). He had been dropped to seventh in the order and he was also threatened with being part of a “rotation” at first base by manager John Farrell.
So when he came around the bases, he and his teammates were thrilled. A group of them came out to greet, high-five, slap him on the head and the butt, you name it.
“It felt good to do something like that in that situation,” Napoli said. “I got a pitch I could drive and put a good swing on it. On a couple of at-bats tonight I felt good about my approach, I got my foot down quick. I just need to go out tomorrow and try to repeat it.”
Napoli came up in the 10th with two on and two out, but he grounded to third.
It’s been a rough couple of months for Napoli (0 for 16 with 10 strikeouts before the homer), who could be one year and done in a Sox uniform.
If things continue to go south, he could go the way of Nick Esasky, Adrian Beltre, Cody Ross, and other one-year-and-dones who came, saw, conquered, and left. Esasky, Beltre, and Ross had reasonably good years. Napoli started well, but wasn’t going too well lately until Wednesday night’s long ball.
Napoli signed a one-year deal with Boston after a protracted contract negotiation in which the medical exam revealed a degenerative condition in both hips. The condition has not been an issue other than the fact Napoli could not be utilized as a catcher this season. The Sox really wanted him to be their full-time first baseman, with only a cameo behind the plate.
So instead of the original deal of three years at $39 million, he accepted one year at $5 million with the chance to earn $8 million more based on his health and games played.
Napoli started out like gangbusters with 27 RBIs in April. He was driving in runs, getting big hits. The music had slowed, however, and lately it was the sound of a swing and miss that was deafening to him.
Nobody feels worse than Napoli.
“I’m just trying to look at positives and trying to get better,” he said. “You want to do good every day. I see what’s going on. I’m not blind and saying everything is OK. I know it’s not OK. Just go out every day and go about my routine.”
Some fear Napoli, as a former catcher, is wearing down. But Napoli, who entered Wednesday night hitting .190 since the All-Star break, said there’s nothing wrong with his hips and that playing first base hasn’t been difficult on his body.
He’s actually been much better defensively at first base than expected.
“I don’t feel like I am worn down,” Napoli said. “I run around the field and feel fresh. We all have nicks here and there. I just haven’t been getting it done. I haven’t been feeling too good at the plate. Just trying to get back to what I was doing.
“I learned at a young age to separate my defense and offense, and let things go and try to get better every day.”
Napoli, who likely will break Mark Bellhorn’s team record of 177 strikeouts in 2004 — made a couple of nice plays on foul balls in Tuesday night’s 4-2 Red Sox win.
Napoli has gotten plenty of advice on breaking his slump. He’s listening to Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz.
“I talk to those guys about certain stuff,” he said. “They’re trying to help. Talking is good. Maybe they’re seeing something that I’m not seeing.”
As for fans getting on him, Napoli said, “I’m used to that. You have to shut that out as a professional. That’s always going to be there.
“My effort is always going to be there. I care. Every time I’m up at the plate, I have a plan. I’m trying to do something good.
“I’ve been through this before. I’ve gone through bad slumps in my career. Every time, I’m thinking that, in my next at-bat, I’ll turn it around. I’ve been in the big leagues a long time. I know what to tune out and what to tune in.”
So far, the Sox have resisted any temptation to start Mike Carp at first full-time or to attempt to acquire someone such as Justin Morneau, who was placed on revocable waivers by the Twins. The Sox elected not to acquire Michael Young of the Phillies.
Without Napoli, the Red Sox really have little righthanded power, which is why they have stuck with him so long. The Sox have very little support in the lineup for Ortiz. Farrell is talking about more playing time for Jonny Gomes, but unless Will Middlebrooks starts hitting for power, the production from the right side of the plate is lacking.
“We might rotate guys through that first base position,” Farrell said before the game. “I’m not saying we’re going to a strict platoon . . . [but] I feel we can manage his time as best possible to keep him fresh. He’s grinding right now. Left/right, we’re going to look at the best combinations.”
Napoli dismissed any notion that the pressure of batting fifth and being the righthanded power source was a factor in his slump. He said he’s always taken the same approach no matter where he’s hit in the lineup and that was usually the bottom half (he batted seventh or eighth with the Angels and Rangers).
“I always go up there with a game plan no matter where I’m hitting in the order,” he said. “It doesn’t always work, but I know in my mind what I want to do, whether that’s moving the runner over, or trying to get a good pitch to hit and just drive it, or try to get the runner in. So where I hit doesn’t matter to me.”
When the Sox signed him, they knew he would go through slumps. They also thought he would rip apart Fenway Park. But the numbers have been pretty even. Entering Wednesday night, he had hit .250 with seven homers and 31 RBIs at Fenway compared with a .241 average with seven homers and 36 RBIs on the road.
Napoli’s struggles haven’t hurt that much overall. The Sox are still leading the league in runs.
And one thing to keep in mind. Napoli has done very well in September/October. He’s hit 33 homers, has knocked in 76 runs, and has an OPS of 1.001 in 376 at-bats in his career during those months. He needs to do that again.