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Ready for his closeup: Mike Napoli embraces return to World Series stage

10.24.13 at 8:00 am ET
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Last offseason, the Red Sox needed a right-handed, middle-of-the-order complement to David Ortiz, someone who would work pitchers over and elevate their pitch counts, trying to wear them down before identifying a pitch to which he could do damage. They wanted a positive clubhouse presence, a player who would embrace the sometimes challenging, sometimes rewarding nature of playing in Boston.

They wanted Mike Napoli.

Napoli represented the team’s top priority at the start of the offseason, a player so central to the team’s hopes for restoring a deep, imposing lineup that principal owner John Henry joined the dinner courtship of him when the Red Sox front office was making its recruiting pitch. While his tortuous offseason saga is now well-documented, it’s safe to say that in the end, after a negotiation that took a confounding number of turns, both Napoli and the Sox got exactly what they wanted.

The Sox got their middle-of-the-order slugger to hit behind Ortiz, a player who has taken the postseason by storm in the past week-plus while delivering considerable thump against some of the top pitchers in the majors.

Against the Tigers in the ALCS, his offense represented the difference in victories over Justin Verlander in Game 3 and Anibal Sanchez in Game 5. On Thursday, in Game 1 of the World Series, he once again helped to jumpstart the Sox offense, following the reversal of a blown call on Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma‘s error by smoking a bases-loaded, three-run double in the bottom of the first inning against St. Louis starter Adam Wainwright, setting in motion the Sox’ offensive eruption en route to an 8-1 victory.

‘€œIt is a pretty big swing moment, even though you’€™re not fully expecting something like that in the first inning,’€ noted Sox manager John Farrell. ‘€œInstead of it being a two’€‘out situation with runners on first and third, we’€™re in a bases’€‘loaded situation, where there’€™s not a whole lot of margin for error in terms of the strike zone, and the ability to possibly have Wainwright expand the zone on Napoli. Fortunately he gets into a 2′€‘0 count and the three’€‘run double, it is a big moment. And we’€™re able to capitalize on the mistake. And I think we’€™ve seen that when you give a team extra outs, as good as the teams you’€™re going to play this late in the season, it can come back to haunt you.’€

There was something familiar about seeing Napoli deliver a game-changing hit against the Cardinals in the World Series. In 2011 with the Rangers, he was a force in the seven-game World Series against St. Louis, hitting .350 with a .464 OBP, .700 slugging mark, two homers and 10 RBI.

“I love this stage,” said Napoli. “It’s in the spotlight. I really enjoy this time of year.”

Of course, Napoli would have enjoyed his first World Series experience more had his Rangers been able to beat the Cardinals. Instead, up 3-2 in the series, Texas lost an epic Game 6 in which it was twice within a strike of clinching a championship, then fell in seven games to St. Louis.

And so, there is the possibility of payback for Napoli.

“From an individual standpoint, I would have some kind of a little chip on my shoulder,” said Shane Victorino. “Losing, being one out away from being a World Series champion and then not getting a World Series. For him, I’€™m sure it sits there. For me it would.”

Napoli had a slightly more muted view.

“It’s nice being able to play against them,” said Napoli. “They took a world championship away from me. But it doesn’t have anything to do with anything.”

What does have something to do with something is the impact that Napoli is having on the Sox’ lineup this postseason. He is tied for the overall lead this postseason with six extra-base hits, combining with teammate David Ortiz to deliver the sort of middle-of-the-order right/left thump that the Sox enjoyed in the postseason when Ortiz was paired with Manny Ramirez in the Sox’ two championships last decade.

“He’s come up big for us,” said Farrell. “He’s been right in the middle of a lot of our multi-run innings. ‘€¦ We ride the peaks and valleys with him. He’s got some streakiness to his career path, and when he’s in the good side of those streaks, he’s had the ability to carry us, and he’s doing that right now.”

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