FORT MYERS – He did WHAT?!
The succession of sensory experiences made no sense to Brock Holt as he sat on the bench in the crowded Red Sox dugout on a mild, windless night. First came the noise.
“I couldn’t really see it because a lot of guys stand at the front, but I heard it,” said Holt. “I heard it was loud.”
Then, in rapid succession, Holt saw the trajectories of two different missiles, following paths that might have made sense individually but that, in tandem, defied his concept of the rules governing the game he plays for a living.
“I looked up and saw the barrel fly, and then I saw the ball. I said, ‘That’s going,’” Holt recalled. “I got up, peeked, watched the ball go over and then everyone got out and went nuts. It was pretty cool.”
“It” was the solo homer mashed by Mike Napoli in the bottom of the fourth inning at JetBlue Park against Twins lefthander Brian Duensing.
Napoli appeared to get his barrel on Duensing’s fastball but the bat – which evidently suffered an undiagnosed fracture in Napoli’s previous at-bat, when he singled to right – exploded, leaving a befuddled Napoli holding nothing but his bat handle in the box while the barrel sailed all the way to the dirt where a third baseman usually resides.
“It was just a weird feeling. The bat exploded and it was just kind of sitting there,” said Napoli. “I can’t really explain it.”
The ball, undeterred by the give of the bat, nonetheless took flight. The 43-foot approximation of Fenway Park’s Green Monster – which rises six feet higher than the Boston original – represents a formidable impediment to homers, having turned JetBlue into one of the most unfriendly venues in baseball for spring roundtrippers. Yet Napoli’s shot, even without benefit of a gust to push it, still sailed over the shelf atop that massive obstacle for an improbable home run.
The combination of the two events – the shattered bat and home run – proved confounding.
“I was just kind of running around the bases like, ‘What just happened?’” said Napoli.
He wasn’t alone. Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe took hold of the barrel of the bat and had no idea what to do with it as Napoli passed him on his tour of the bases.
“I think Plouffe tried to give the barrel of it back to him when he was rounding third. Napoli stone-faced him,” said reliever Craig Breslow.
The fact that it did clear the massive edifice in left raised another question: How far would the shot to left-center have traveled had the bat remained intact?
“Oh my God – I don’t even want to know,” said Xander Bogaerts. “It probably would have landed on the agility field somewhere,” a reference to an area that sits perhaps 50-75 feet beyond the farthest reaches of the ballpark.
On one hand, Napoli’s blast represented an entertaining diversion in a meaningless spring game. On the other hand, his restored ability to pulverize baseballs in a fashion replicated by few – he’s now hitting .433 with a .500 OBP, .867 slugging mark, and a team-leading four homers this spring – offered a couple of powerful messages.
First, his now huge spring numbers underscore that his hands, damaged for so much of last year, are now once again permitting him to mash.
“Nap’s got incredible power. “I think we’re all excited to see what he can do with a full healthy season. That was just one feat of strength that we were all able to witness,” said Breslow. “That would have been out of any park with a broken bat. Hopefully that’s a sign of things to come.”
Meanwhile, Napoli’s blast came as part of a string of seven straight hits in a six-run fourth inning that set the stage for a 14-2 eruption, much of it against the Twins’ regular season big league bullpen. The early suggestions that he’s ready to reclaim his power-hitting ability could put the Sox in elite company.
Last year, just six teams had three or more hitters reach 20 or more homers, and just one (the Orioles) had four players reach that plateau. With David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez, and a healthy Napoli in the middle of the order, along with other candidates to hit for power (Pablo Sandoval, Xander Bogaerts, perhaps even Mookie Betts), the Sox could present a lineup with a depth of threats matched by few.
The steady rolling thunder of Monday night – highlighted by the reverberating crack of Napoli’s homer – offered what the Sox hope and believe is a harbinger for an elite, unrelenting offense, perhaps one where more “did you see that?” feats of strength will become necessary to digest.
“They’re going to do that a lot throughout the season,” said starting pitcher Justin Masterson. “You know what I’m really excited about? You’re going to have a different guy go on a hot streak for a while -- a week of this guy, a week of that guy, and when they come together, oh, man, I’m going to sit there, put my feet back, and just watch.”