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Daniel Nava on game-winning homer: ‘It’s special because of the journey I’ve taken’

04.08.13 at 8:06 pm ET
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Certainly, Daniel Nava has a penchant for producing his share of dramatic moments at Fenway Park. After all, in his first big league at-bat, he launched a first-pitch grand slam into the Red Sox bullpen in right-center, one of three players in history to pull off that trick.

Still, a case can be made that his game-winning three-run homer at the Red Sox’ home opener on Monday, while somewhat less dramatic, may have been more meaningful. After all, when he had his grand slam back in 2010, it represented the continuation of a steady — albeit late — upward climb from obscurity to the majors. He’d gotten progressively better, positioning himself for that moment. But he’d subsequently experienced failure, getting designated for assigment while struggling in early 2011 and, ultimately, being left to wonder whether the Red Sox might release him last spring.

He made it back to the big leagues last year, but the fresh memory of how close he came to being an answer to a trivia question and little more in his career remained with him. And so, this year, he’s approached a couple of more modest career milestones with a greater sense of perspective. He made his first Opening Day roster, getting introduced on the field in New York. But the early-season struggles of Jackie Bradley Jr. created an even more significant (and unexpected) opportunity on Monday: A place in the Red Sox lineup for their home opener against the Orioles.

While Nava has been known as a player whose primary impact is expected to come against right-handed pitchers, the switch-hitter showed enough against lefties during spring training that manager John Farrell felt comfortable inserting the 30-year-old into the sixth spot in the lineup.

And the red-hot Nava rewarded that decision by reaching base in all three of his plate appearances — reaching via a walk, pulling a single to left and then, most critically, launching a two-on, one-out homer over everything in left field for a three-run blast that proved the only offense the Sox could muster against Orioles starter Wei-Yin Chen.

Some players try to downplay the significance of a moment such as a game-winning homer at a home opener and what it means in a broader career context. Nava is no among them. Instead, he sounded a note of humble enthusiasm in taking stock of his day,

“It’s special because it’s Opening Day, which is a special experience just to begin with. And then for me it’s special because of the journey I’ve taken,” said Nava. “I feel like it’s been a good journey. Hopefully it’s not over. 2011 was a good season just to learn from failing, again. To have what happened last year, to get called up, was something that meant a lot more than the first time, because I had to go through some obstacles to get back. And the first time was pretty much success the whole way. It was good to experience that. Made me really grateful to have another chance. I’ve tried to keep that mentality this year and hopefully whatever happens in the future, that’s something I don’t forget.”

Nava’s three-run blast was big not just in the broader arc of his career journey but also from a more narrowly defined perspective of 2013. The fact that Nava was given an opportunity against a left-hander and made the most of it underscores the excellent place where he finds himself as a contributor to this year’s Red Sox. He’s been in an unbelievable run to start the year — going 6-for-12 while reaching base in 10 of 17 plate appearances with two homers en route to a .500/.588/1.083 line — and his strong performance has positioned him to keep getting more opportunities, particularly if he can show that his career .191 average and .302 OBP against lefties (prior to Monday) does not represent his current skill set. Certainly, Nava feels he made strides over the spring while hitting right-handed.

“I had a couple of at-bats early in spring training, faced a lot of lefties, and could think about some stuff. I thought I was getting into it a little too much in terms of just gearing up,” he explained. “Tried to relax more and make sure that I kind of applied what I do from the left side to the right side as best I could and just let the ball travel and trust myself.”

The Sox are likewise learning to trust Nava, but the switch-hitter was careful not to suggest that his standout game served as any kind of statement.

“It feels good to put those at-bats up against a lefty, because any player who steps on the field, if they’re a switch hitter, they want it to be known that they can hit from both sides, so it felt good today,” said Nava. “Who knows what the future holds with that, but for today I was happy to contribute from the right side.”

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