Three pitches into his first at-bat, Mike Napoli was staring down the barrel of the kind of history no one wants to be a part of.
He was down, 1 and 2, to Yankees lefthander CC Sabathia after watching a sinker barely graze the outside of the strike zone and then passing on a belt-high slider.
It was a count he had seen 100 times before this season. Fifty-five of those ended in strikeouts.
Sitting on 176 punchouts for the season, one more strike and Napoli would have been nestled next to Mark Bellhorn in the Red Sox’ record book for most strikeouts in a season.
The changeup that Sabathia fed him on the next pitch wasn’t much, but Napoli made what he could out of it, bouncing it down the third base line.
The play seemed routine enough for Yankees third baseman Mark Reynolds, but his throw sailed into the Red Sox dugout and allowed Napoli to take second.
With one error, Napoli went from fighting off infamy to being in scoring position.
Napoli eventually scored on a Will Middlebrooks ground ball, the first run in the Sox’ 5-1 win over the Yankees Saturday at Fenway Park.
The plate disciple goes beyond staving off an unwanted record.
After striking out 141 times in his first 100 games, Napoli has curbed the Ks, fanning just 35 times in his last 31.
“I don’t think I’ve been striking out as much lately,” he said. “Just went through a funk earlier in the year. Just piled a bunch of them up in a short period of time.”
Napoli found himself in two more two-strike counts, but rather than trying to swing himself out of the situation, he worked the at-bats, milking as many pitches as possible until the count swung in his favor.
In the process of going 2 for 2 with two singles and two walks, Napoli saw 22 pitches. Coming in, Napoli had swung at 41.7 percent of the pitches he had seen, according to FanGraphs, but Saturday he took only six swings all game.
He fouled off four pitches, including two to work an eight-pitch walk in the seventh inning, and he didn’t whiff once.
His strikeout rate is high, but Napoli has been one of the best on the team at extending at-bats, averaging a team-high 4.56 pitches per plate appearance.
But there’s been a difference lately.
“Right now, I’m recognizing pitches,” he said. “I’ve been getting deep into counts all year, but I just felt really good today and I was able to sit on some pitches that usually you swing through.”
When the strikeouts were coming in bunches, such as in July when he fanned 37 times in 22 games and hit .241, he knew the slump wouldn’t last.
“It’s just a part of baseball,” Napoli said. “I’ve been through it before, too. I’ve just got to keep grinding and working hard in the cage and in my BP. I found something and I feel comfortable.”
He tinkered with his mechanics in order to improve his timing, and ultimately the results came.
In his last 12 games, Napoli is hitting .424 with four homers, 11 RBIs, and 10 walks.
“For me, it was just getting my foot down on time,” he said. I felt like I was rushing with my swing with my hands and I wasn’t getting my foot down. So I’m starting a little earlier, and that’s about it.”
With 12 games left, it won’t be the last time Napoli sees a two-strike count.
But whether the record-setting strikeout comes or not, Napoli is confident the whiffs no longer will come in waves.
“I feel good now,” he said. “And that’s behind me.”Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.