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RED SOX NOTEBOOK

Mike Napoli meeting goal of reducing strikeouts

Better with two strikes, he’s reduced strikeout rate

Mike Napoli, here taking a big cut on Saturday, has refined his two-strike approach this season. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

MICHAEL DWYER/AP

Mike Napoli, here taking a big cut on Saturday, has refined his two-strike approach this season.

Mike Napoli set a Red Sox record with 187 strikeouts last season, something that didn’t necessarily bother general manager Ben Cherington or manager John Farrell.

They saw the strikeouts as a product of Napoli leading the majors with an average of 4.58 pitches per plate appearance. That Napoli added 73 walks, 63 extra-base hits, and 92 RBIs to the offense further negated the impact of the strikeouts.

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But Napoli believes he can cut down on his strikeouts while still making the same contributions, if not more. It seems to be working, too.

Through Saturday, Napoli was hitting .262 with a .724 OPS on two-strike counts, an improvement over last season when he hit .193 with a .622 OPS. He has dropped his strikeouts by 3 percent.

“I guess the biggest difference is that I have a two-strike approach now,” Napoli said. “I try to shorten my swing and use more of the field. I’ve tried to do it since spring training.”

Farrell sees a difference.

“There have been a number of times we see him cut down a swing and stay in the middle of the field a little bit more,” he said. “Maybe sacrificing a little bit of the power for contact. I think he’s carrying out what he set out to do.”

Following Sunday night’s 6-5 comeback win over the Orioles, Napoli is hitting .279 with three home runs and 10 RBIs. He hopes that his new approach will smooth out the peaks and valleys that marked his season in 2013.

“I want to be more consistent, make more contact,” Napoli said. “I’ve always struck out some but you can improve. Early in the count and late in the count I feel like my swing has been better. I’m still swinging aggressively but I’m quicker to the ball.”

Pregame ceremony

The Red Sox held a pregame ceremony on the eve of the Boston Marathon to pay tribute to those affected by last year’s bombings and those who responded.

Governor Deval L. Patrick, Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston, former mayor Thomas M. Menino, and former Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis were among the participants.

As the University of Massachusetts band played “Highland Cathedral” with the assistance of the Massachusetts State Police bagpipes and drums and the Stuart Highlanders, police officers, medical professionals, victims of the bombing, Marathon runners, and Marathon volunteers came onto the field from various entrances.

The group included Carlos Arredondo, Heather Abbott, Jeff Bauman, the Corcoran family, Patrick Downes, Marc Fucarile, and Jessica Kensky. Dick and Rick Hoyt led the group of runners out.

The warning track was ringed with banners expressing support from other states and other teams.

James Gallagher, the president of One Fund Boston, threw out the first pitch to David Ortiz.

Three other Boston business leaders instrumental in forming the One Fund — Jack Connors, Karen Kaplan, and Mike Sheehan — were at the mound when Gallagher threw the pitch.

As players from both teams lined up on the baselines for the ceremony, the family of Lingzi Lu announced “play ball” to the crowd.

“There’s certainly a recognition of what this weekend represents in Boston and what we experienced a year ago,” Farrell said. “The overriding thing is that we all feel a greater sense of pride having been part of a community that rallied around a tragic event, and on some small level we were part of the healing process. Hopefully [Monday] is another day of healing.”

He’s ready to play

Third baseman Will Middlebrooks, out since April 5 with a strained right calf, will start a rehabilitation assignment with Triple A Pawtucket Monday.

The tentative plan is for Middlebrooks to play Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday before being evaluated again.

The Red Sox start a three-game series at Toronto Friday. Middlebrooks is 14 of 43 (.326) in 11 career games at Rogers Centre with 4 doubles, 4 home runs, and 6 RBIs.

“I need to run at game speed, but I’m feeling good,” Middlebrooks said. “Hopefully I’m just there a few days and I’ll be ready to come back. It’s been too long already.”

Shane Victorino worked out with the Red Sox at Fenway Sunday and will continue his rehab assignment with Pawtucket Monday. He was 0 for 3 in his first game Saturday.

The plan for Victorino is to get four at-bats Monday before playing nine innings Tuesday.

If that goes well, Victorino could be activated Wednesday.

He has been out all season with a strained right hamstring that he sustained on the final day of spring training.

Pawtucket hosts Buffalo at 6:15 p.m. Monday.

Day off for Bradley

Jackie Bradley Jr., who had started 14 consecutive games, was out of the lineup as Grady Sizemore started in center field for the first time since April 8.

Bradley was 3 for 30 in the previous 10 games, but drew nine walks. He is hitting only .220, but does have a .339 on-base percentage.

Farrell sees an improvement from last season, when Bradley hit .189 with a .280 OBP over 37 games.

“Overall, yes. More of a known commodity of what the pitchers are trying to do to attack him,” the manager said.

“I think he’s just become more familiar with the major league environment.”

One concern is strikeouts. Bradley has fanned 18 times in 59 plate appearances this year.

He struck out only 17 percent of the time in minor league games.

“Even he acknowledges the frequency of strikeouts have been greater than what he’s experienced at the minor league level. He’s also facing very good pitching every night he walks on the field.” Farrell said.

“It’s a different challenge at this level.”

Bradley’s superior defense is part of the equation, too. So the Sox are riding out the offensive waves.

“Along the way with young players, there’s going to be some ebb and flow to the performance and we have to remain patient to that,” Farrell said.

Looking ahead

The Yankees have a day off in Boston Monday after playing the Rays in St. Petersburg, Fla., over the weekend. Tuesday’s game will feature a matchup between Jon Lester and the much-heralded Masahiro Tanaka. Lester is 2-2 with a 2.17 earned run average over four starts. Tanaka is 2-0 with a 2.05 ERA over three starts. Tanaka has struck out 28 in 22 innings and walked only two. Lester had 29 strikeouts in 29 innings with four walks. The Yankees initially didn’t plan on having Tanaka in the series, but a rainout last week changed their rotation . . . Bauman and Downes got to have a little fun at Fenway Park during the afternoon. They threw batting practice to Jonny Gomes and David Ross . . . Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy left the game after the sixth inning with a strained right hamstring. His condition is day-to-day . . . Best of luck to Red Sox manager of media relations Abby DeCiccio, who is running the Marathon to raise money for the Red Sox Foundation.

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.
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