DETROIT – If this is one of Mike Napoli’s streaks, the Red Sox will be happy to ride it as long as they can, especially if it takes them to the World Series.
Entering Game 4 of the ALCS on Wednesday night, Napoli had been 3-for-35 in the postseason, with eight strikeouts and with one very important extra-base hit – a home run in Game 3 for the only run of the game. In the ALCS against the Tigers entering Game 4, he had been 1-for-15, with six strikeouts.
In the past two games, Napoli is 5-for-8, with three runs scored, an RBI, and three extra-base hits. In Game 5 Thursday night, he led the Red Sox to a 4-3 victory over the Tigers at Comerica Park, and a 3-2 lead in the series.
Napoli went 3-for-4 and was a triple shy of the cycle, with two runs scored and one RBI. He led off the Sox three-run second inning, mashing an Anibal Sanchez 3-and-1 fastball to straightaway center field. Unofficial estimates had Napoli’s home run at 450-460 feet.
“Off the bat you knew he got it good,” said manager John Farrell. “But where we saw it land obviously he's got tremendous power, and he got everything into that. I don't know if it relaxed us or it gave us an injection of life, but I think more than anything, following the home run he hit the other day and a couple of base hits last night. We talked about some streakiness. He's in one of those good streaks right now."
With one out in the third, Napoli doubled to left field, taking third on Jonny Gomes’ groundout back to Sanchez. And when Sanchez spiked a wild pitch to Stephen Drew, Napoli scored the Sox’ fourth run, which would prove to be the difference in the game.
With two outs in the sixth, Napoli singled, moving David Ortiz to second. His lone out came in the eighth, leading off, retired on a strikeout by reliever Jose Veras.
“Like I said, he has the ability to carry us,” Farrell said. “To me, equal to the home run was his base running tonight. He gets the double. He goes ‑‑ advances a throw on a tapper back to the mound and his instincts on the wild pitch, it ended up being a difference maker tonight, the base running, all the way around.”
Napoli was not discouraged by his slow start in the postseason.
“I'm confident,” he said. “Coming to the series I was feeling good, had a little rough start. But my swing felt good. I'm always confident when I'm in the box.
“I've been feeling good all series. I can't really put my finger on it, just going up there trying to give a tough at‑bat every time. I got some pitches that I could handle.
The Sox are now one win away from the World Series. Napoli has been there before, with the Rangers in 2011, when they fell to St. Louis.
“Of course I want to get back there,” Napoli said. “But I'm not getting too far ahead of ourselves here. We take one game at a time and try to win that day. We're in a good position now but we've still got business to take care of. A big game coming up. We'll go out there and just play, play the way we do.”
Game 5 was a sharp turnaround for Napoli from Game 1, in which he went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts and walk, including two strikeouts by Sanchez. The difference?
“I don't know, just probably a couple more pitches up,” he said. “Seemed like he was leaning on the corners, and got us to chase some pitches the first game. Me, personally, I was just trying to get something up in the zone and see pitches, like I always do. And I was able to get some up.”
Scoring on the wild pitch in the second inning wasn’t something Napoli had expected, but he was ready for it, just in case.
“I'm always ready,” he said. “It's a weird play. Some of that rarely happens, but you've always got to be ready for it. Butter [third-base coach Brian Butterfield] is always in my ear to be ready for a ball in the dirt. We were talking earlier about 90 feet can win you a ballgame. And that definitely helped us tonight.”
As for his titanic solo shot?
“[The distance] really doesn't really matter to me,” he said. “It can go in the first row, for all I care, you know. But, yeah, I was in a hitter's count, I was looking for a fastball. And I got a pitch I could handle.”
Jon Lester was the beneficiary of Napoli’s offensive outbursts. The left-hander earned the win, improving to 1-1 in the ALCS.
“I said this in spring training, he's complete opposite of what I thought he was,” Lester said. “I thought he was a pretty vocal guy, playing against him on the other side, just watching him. I thought he was kind of more I guess talkative, just all the way around. But the guy, it's unbelievable to see him go about his work every day. God blessed his butt in spring training to be an unbelievable first baseman for us this year.
“He's obviously picked us up in big situations throughout the season," Lester said. "And tonight was another one of those situations, picking us up 1‑0 right there off a pretty good pitcher. It's a big yard to go in that park, and he made this yard look small with that swing. It's been fun to be his teammate this year, and hopefully we can continue that in the future.”