DETROIT — Up until his at-bat in the seventh inning, the one that would decide the day, first baseman Mike Napoli fell right in line with the rest of the frustrated ranks of Red Sox hitters.
He came to bat in the second inning and struck out. He came to bat in the fifth inning and struck out. Justin Verlander, the Tigers’ superb righthander, picked up right where fellow Detroit starters Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer left off in Games 1 and 2 of the American League Championship Series, turning those hardwood Boston bats into fall-a-particle boards.
And here was Napoli again, with one out and bases empty in the seventh, the Sox having managed to knock only four balls to the outfield all day. With the count 1-and-2, Verlander and batterymate Alex Avila twice opted to tease Napoli with a slider, tried to get him to chase a breaking ball for strike three and become Verlander’s ninth K of the day.
No dice. Patient. Stubborn. Keen-eyed. Napoli was all of that, working the count to 3-2 and forcing Verlander to change his strategy. Time for the fastball.
“A 3-2 fastball that Nap got to drive out of the ballpark,’’ mused Sox manager John Farrell, after Napoli’s homer led the Sox to their 1-0 victory and a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. “Obviously, that’s the key moment from the offensive side.’’
Napoli is known as one of the Red Sox’ key grinders at the plate, often working pitchers to high counts and higher frustration. Overall, Farrell noted a slight change in his lineup’s approach at the plate Tuesday, a willingness to swing earlier in counts. But Napoli ultimately worked the count full, and then drove Verlander’s 100th pitch of the day over the wall in left.
“I’m not searching for anything,’’ explained Napoli, whose first career homer, as an Angel, came in his first big league at-bat, also against Verlander. “For me, it’s just being on time. Going into that at-bat, he got me twice early in the game. He threw me four sliders, which he’s never done to me before — but I just kept going at it. I put a good at-bat together. I was able to get it to 3-2 and got a pitch I could handle.’’
The four hitters ahead of Napoli in the lineup — Jacoby Ellsbury, Shane Victorino, Dustin Pedroia, and David Ortiz — cobbled together but one hit in their 15 at-bats against Verlander. A master both of mixing and spotting his pitches, much like Pedro Martinez in his days with Boston, the wily Verlander again dominated. The Sox didn’t manage their first hit until Johnny Gomes reached on an infield single in the fifth. Ellsbury also reached Verlander for a one-out single in the sixth.
For the day, the Sox had only four hits and went 0 for 4 with runners in scoring position. The Tigers had six hits, but were even worse (0 for 7) with runners in scoring position. On a breezy, chilly day in Comerica Park, it all came down to the strong-armed Verlander against the oft-streaky, strikeout-prone Napoli.
“When he gets into that stretch run when he’s on the right side of streakiness,’’ said Farrell, “he can carry us.’’
Case in point: Napoli can turn from the two-strikeout-when-will-he-ever-hit? version of himself into the quick-swing-ball-over-the-wall version. It’s how he entered the league as a raw rookie in that first at-bat vs. Verlander. It’s how he was in Game 3 of the ALCS, his long ball delivering the Sox to within two victories of a return trip to the World Series.
“Every at-bat, I try to see a lot of pitches,’’ he said. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to be aggressive early in the count. I’m just trying to get a pitch I can handle and drive it somewhere.’’