BOSTON (CBS) — When the Red Sox signed Mike Napoli to a three-year, $39 million contract in the offseason, the transaction was hardly met with great fanfare in Boston. And when a physical exam discovered a degenerative hip condition — and the deal subsequently become a one-year pact for $5 million with incentives — expectations were immediately lowered on the 31-year-old’s production in 2013.
Well, through the first 19 games of the season, all Napoli has done is come through as the team’s offensive MVP.
He shared American League Co-Player Of The Week honors with teammate Andrew Bailey last week, which was announced Monday afternoon, and he kept that hot streak rolling right through Monday night against the A’s.
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He stepped to the plate in the bottom of the second and drove in David Ortiz from second with an opposite field double down the line in right. After getting hit by a pitch in his following at-bat and later scoring on Will Middlebrooks’ home run, Napoli dug in with the bases loaded in the fifth inning. After falling behind 0-1, Napoli put a beauty of a swing on a low fastball and launched it over the Monster in left-center field for the fourth grand slam of his career, which blew the game wide open.
“It was an exciting moment,” a calm Napoli said afterward in the Red Sox clubhouse. “I was down 0-1, I was just trying to drive something, get a sac fly, just put a ball in the air out there. I just got a pitch to drive and hit a grand slam.”
These days, it seems everything is working out in Napoli’s favor. He’s had multiple hits in five of the last seven games, and he’s hitting .356 with seven doubles, a triple, two homers, 18 RBIs and a 1.097 OPS since April 11.
“He’s incredible,” said Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “He’s strong — strong as can be, I guess. He just hits things with one hand and it goes out. It’s nice to have him in our lineup, for sure. … He’s a tough guy to pitch around. I know we tried for years.”
The Red Sox, of course, famously struggled to get Napoli out for quite some time in their home ballpark when he came in as a visitor, with his seven homers, 17 RBIs and 1.107 OPS in 19 games at Fenway getting mentioned every time Napoli was discussed all winter.
While he’s been an excellent hitter at Fenway in 10 games this season, he’s been an equal-opportunity masher. In 10 games at home, he has five doubles, two homers and 12 RBIs, and in nine games on the road, he has four doubles, two homers and 13 RBIs.
“He sees the ball well here, he likes it here,” Saltalamacchia said of Napoli at Fenway, “but he’s dangerous in any ballpark.”
After the Red Sox’ 9-6 win on Monday, Napoli wasn’t exactly soaking in the glory. He gave credit to the guys in the top of the order who have been consistently getting on base in front of him, he said the close wall in left at Fenway may have turned a few pop flies into hits, and he vowed to “keep working in the cage, try to stay square and keep going.”
“Last year, I was really up and down,” Napoli said of his .227/.343/.469 campaign with the Rangers last season. “I didn’t really feel like this last year. In 2011, this is how I felt in the second half of the year [when he hit .383 with 18 home runs and 15 doubles]. I’m just trying to keep my routine the same, have that same feeling every day and see what happens.”
What has happened thus far is something nobody — likely not even Ben Cherington on his most optimistic day in February — could have predicted: The Red Sox tied for the best record in the American League, sitting just a half-game out of the best record in all of MLB. It’s a testament to many things, with starting pitching chief among them, but you can’t win if you don’t score. And with David Ortiz absent for the first three weeks of the season, it was Napoli’s ability to step up in the cleanup spot that has the Red Sox second in the AL in runs scored.
“When David was out, [Napoli] was the main cog in the middle of the order,” manager John Farrell said. “He’s got such a good approach, he uses the whole field — [like] the double down the right-field line. I don’t know that there’s any one way you can pitch him consistently, and he’s got not only a good approach but he’s able to pick out certain pitches and look to attack.”
The case could be made for a few different team MVPs thus far, but the man who single-handedly accounts for 27 percent of the team’s RBIs is someone whose presence has been rather valuable through 19 games.
As Farrell put it, “I’d hate to think where we’d be without him.”