BOSTON (CBS) — Monday afternoon’s Red Sox home opener provided the usual amount of excitement that comes every year when the Sox play their first game of the year at Fenway Park. And there was a bit of an additional level of anticipation this year, as fans were excited to catch their first glimpse of the most-hyped young prospect in many years, Jackie Bradley Jr.
It was a disappointment for many, then, when John Farrell drew up a lineup that did not include Bradley, but instead had Daniel Nava starting in left field and being sixth.
It took a while, but Nava made Farrell look like a genius. And just as important, he made the home crowd happy.
Locked in a scoreless tie in the bottom of the seventh, the Red Sox finally appeared poised to break through offensively against starter Wei-Yin Chen. Dustin Pedroia legged out an infield hit behind second base before Mike Napoli launched a deep fly ball to the 379 marker in left-center field. Up stepped Will Middlebrooks, the man who hit three home runs one day earlier in Toronto, but he struck out swinging after a long battle with Chen.
Needing just a fly ball to score Pedroia and give the Red Sox a lead, Nava did much better, launching a 1-1 offering from Chen high and deep over the Green Monster, a shot that may still be flying over the Mass Pike.
“The way Chen has been effective against lefties, Jackie’s been pitched to pretty consistently here of late, and really the way Daniel has swung the bat,” Farrell said of his decision to start Nava over Bradley. “I think he’s done a much better job of picking out some pitches to get a pitch to drive. … He puts up consistent ABs.
“He’s done a heck of a job at the plate,” Farrell added.
Of course, the decision for Farrell to play Nava over Bradley wasn’t too difficult, at least not from a strictly baseball perspective. Bradley entered the game just 1-for-10 with five strikeouts against left-handers this season, while Nava entered Monday with a .400 average and .500 on-base percentage on the young season. He kept things rolling, too, drawing a walk in his first plate appearance Monday and smoking a single through the hole on the left side in the sixth.
It all paled in comparison, obviously, to what he did in the seventh.
“Opening day is a special experience just to begin with,” Nava said. “I wasn’t trying to hit a home run — it just worked out like that. … Off the bat, I knew I got it.
“I think with the clubhouse we got assembled, everyone just wants to win, and it’s contagious,” Nava added. “Obviously, I was pumped, I was excited because it gave us a three-run lead.”
Unlike Bradley, Nava’s road to the majors was a long, complicated and improbable journey. While his tale of being signed for $1 is well-known by now, it flew somewhat under the radar that Monday was his first home opener in a Red Sox uniform. When nobody else could get it done, it was Nava who lifted his team.
“I didn’t come through,” Middlebrooks said of his seventh-inning at-bat. “Then Daniel came in, had my back, and had our whole team’s back.”
While Bradley, who has drawn five walks for a .333 OBP thus far, has not been a disappointment, but he hasn’t exactly been tearing the cover off the ball. Nava’s early success, combined with what could be an April return for David Ortiz, could pave the way for Bradley to get his first taste of Triple-A sooner than many expected — especially after his showing on opening day against CC Sabathia last week. In the long term, sending Bradley down will likely end up being most beneficial to the Red Sox, in part to round out his offensive game and also to ensure he remains a Red Sox for an extra season in 2019, which will happen if he spends 20 days in Triple-A this season.
But if Nava, the unlikeliest of unlikely ball players to become an impact player in Boston, can keep it up, it’ll continue to be a pretty good thing in the short term, too.