Mike Napoli was in line to be the Most Valuable Player of the 2011 World Series, right up until the Texas Rangers blew a ninth-inning lead in Game 6 and went on to lose the series in seven games against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Napoli was 7 for 20 in that series with two home runs, six walks, and 10 RBIs. Even now, two year later, losing those final two games is never far from his mind.
Napoli is a game away from a return trip to the Series, this time with the Red Sox.
Game 6 of the American League Championship Series will be Saturday at Fenway Park. The Red Sox are up, 3-2, on the Detroit Tigers thanks to excellent pitching and a power surge from their first baseman.
Napoli is 6 of his last 10 in the series with two home runs, two doubles, and four runs. After a slow start this postseason, Napoli has become the hitter the Tigers fear the most.
Detroit has held David Ortiz to two hits in the series, with only a harmless single in 12 at-bats since his grand slam in Game 2. In the last three games, Napoli has carried the offense.
“That’s huge. That makes them pitch to Papi a little more,” Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “Papi is the guy they’ve picked to not let beat them. If that’s the case, you’ve got Napoli right behind him to hit some homers and pick Papi up. That’s the key to our success all year long, picking each other up.
“Having him in that lineup is a presence. It’s hard for pitchers. I know as a catcher when I’m calling pitches to a guy like that, it makes you work.”
Napoli is a career .273 hitter with an .863 OPS over 41 postseason games. He has 12 extra-base hits, seven of them home runs, and has driven in 22 runs.
That history has made it easier for manager John Farrell to endure Napoli’s slumps. Outside of Game 2 in the ALCS, when Mike Carp started at first base, Napoli has started every game in the postseason. He will be in the lineup against Tigers righthander Max Scherzer on Saturday.
Napoli is 1 for 13 against Scherzer in his career, which was why he didn’t start Game 2. But Farrell knows not to mess with Napoli once he heats up.
“I don’t know that you’re looking for any indicators. You’re personally willing to put him in the lineup every day. You ride through the peaks and the valleys,” Farrell said. “When he gets into that upswing he can carry us.”
Napoli has come to accept what kind of player he is. Part of what makes him effective is the ability to forget about previous games and walk into the clubhouse the next day with a clean slate.
All those strikeouts and 0-for-4 days may discourage some fans. But Napoli knows that his value will eventually become clear — usually when balls start clearing the fence.
“There’s times when I’ve struggled and it doesn’t bother me. I just go on to the next game and keep going,” he said. “I know I’m always one pitch away from doing something good. You have to keep grinding and keep going. I never get discouraged. I’m always going out there confident and thinking I’m going to do something good.”
In Game 6 on Thursday, Napoli changed the game in the second inning with a 460-foot home run to center field off Anibal Sanchez. The blast started a three-run inning for the Red Sox.
Hall of Famer Jim Rice, who hit dozens of tape-measure shots in his career for the Red Sox, was watching the game from home.
“I had a good feeling because Nap has been short to the ball the last few games and getting his bat around quickly,” Rice said. “That timing is there and he’s a strong man.”
Rice, who is not easily impressed by power hitters, was impressed with that home run.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “He got that one. Man.”
Napoli cracked a little smile when asked about the home run. But he was far more animated talking about the 90 feet he covered in the third inning to score the deciding run.
Napoli hit a ground-rule double to left with one out and took off for third when Jonny Gomes tapped a ball back to the mound. Sanchez had no time to make a play and took the out at first. Napoli then scored on a wild pitch.
“I take pride in my base running,” he said. “I learned at a young age in the Angels organization about base running and being aggressive and not being scared. Ninety feet can help you win a ballgame. We talk about that all the time.
“I’m not a fast guy. But you can still get good reads off the bat and check the fielders and make a play. People think I’m a big, slow guy but you can make yourself a fast guy on the bases if you’re smart and you’re aware of the situation.”
Said Farrell: “You see the other things he’s very capable of doing . . . He might be our best instinctual base runner on this team. That’s not to be confused with foot speed, but his reads and breaks are tremendous.”
Napoli is eager to get back to the World Series and erase the memory of 2011. The opportunity comes on Saturday.
“I’m feeling good and this is the game,” he said. “I can’t wait to get out there.”