Hips don't lie: Napoli off to hot start once again

Hips don't lie: Napoli off to hot start once again
April 3, 2014, 12:00 pm
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BALTIMORE -- Some sluggers take a while before their swing is ready. In the season's first few weeks, they find their timing to be off, the bat speed still a bit slow.
And then there's Mike Napoli.
In his first season with the Red Sox, Napoli carried the club with 27 RBI in the month of April, during which the Sox were without David Ortiz for the first two weeks. He set club records for most doubles (13) and extra- base hits (18) in April.
Two games into 2014, little has changed.
After going 1-for-2 with a double and two walks in Monday's opener, Napoli broke out with a four-RBI night Wednesday, helping the Red Sox to a 6-2 win over the Baltimore Orioles.
In the fourth inning, down 0-and-2 to Ubaldo Jimenez, Napoli shortened up his swing and drilled a pitch to straightaway center, landing some 410 feet from the plate.
"In that situation," recounted Napoli, "I'm just trying to shorten up and put the ball in play. But I take aggressive swings, always, and I got a pitch I could handle and put a good swing on it.
Then, in the seventh, after the O's elected to walk David Ortiz to load the bases, Napoli slashed a single to left, scoring two runs.
That, too, continued a trend: Napoli is money with the bases loaded. Last year, he had 31 RBI with the bases loaded -- going 11-for-24 in such situations -- the most of any hitter in the game and the most for a Red Sox player since Vern Stephens had 32 in 1950.
"I'm just trying to hit a fly ball to get the run in," said Napoli, "and I just happened to get a base hit, so that's extra. It's nice to come through in those situations. It's going to happen (where teams walk Ortiz to get to him). They're not going to give in to him; they're going to make me beat them."
Which he routinely did last year, as the 31 bases-loaded RBI attest.
Last season Napoli seemed to take it as a personal affront whenever teams walked Ortiz to pitch to him instead. Now, he's more measured.
"I had a taste of it last year," said Napoli. "I really used to get amped up for it and I was able to just stay calm and get the job done. I'm not trying to put extra pressure on myself. Like I said, I was trying to get a fly ball out of it and get an RBI out of it, get (a run across).
"I know it's going to happen (with Ortiz) and I'm just going to go up there and try to have a good at-bat every time."
If Napoli merely repeated the season he had a year ago -- when he finished second to Ortiz in homers (23), slugging (.482) and OPS (.842) -- the Red Sox would be more than satisfied.
But there's something to suggest that he might have more in store.
Unlike the previous winter, Napoli was able to go through a more traditional off-season this past winter. After first signing a three-year, $39 million deal with the Sox in December of 2012, it was discovered that Napoli had a degenerative hip condition.
While his contract hung in the balance -- and was eventually restructured to a one-year deal, limiting the club's risk -- Napoli could do little in the way of off-season workouts. It wasn't until several weeks into last spring training that he was finally cleared to run.
But this winter included no such restrictions. Napoli worked out, built his lower half with weight training and did plenty of running to get his legs in shape.
The result? Napoli already has a stronger foundation underneath him.
"I felt a lot better coming into spring (training)," he said. "I didn't have to wait to start running. I could basically get ready for the season. I feel good now. I feel like I know my swing. I'm just trying to maintain what I'm doing. I feel more compact and shorter to the ball."
"Nap is in a good place right now," said John Farrell. "He swung the bat well in the opener and had some good swings again today -- and timely. I think the most encouraging thing is he's been able to handle balls on the inside part of the plate to the pull side maybe a little bit earlier than a year ago. Those are all encouraging signs."
When George Steinbrenner once famously hung the nickname of "Mr. April" on Dave Winfield, it was meant as an insult.
For Napoli, a latter-day Mr. April, it's just truth in advertising.