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Mike Napoli, Yankee punisher, makes Masahiro Tanaka pay for mistake

06.28.14 at 11:55 pm ET
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NEW YORK — Through eight innings of a 1-1 tie, it had been a difficult night for Mike Napoli at the plate. The first baseman had stepped to the plate three times against Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka without putting a ball in play. He walked once and struck out twice, both times on splitters.

That preface suggested that Napoli was in trouble when he fell behind Tanaka, 1-2, with two outs in the top of the ninth inning. But after Tanaka got back-to-back swings and misses from Napoli — one on a slider, one on a splitter — to put him on the defensive, the dazzling rookie opted for an ill-fated change of course. Instead of attacking with one of his secondary offerings, Tanaka let loose a 96 mph fastball that sailed up and to the outer part of the plate in the strike zone.

“He had me where he wanted me. I don’€™t know, I was just looking, I was just hoping he would hang the split. Usually he doesn’€™t,” said Napoli. “I was pretty surprised, but I was down to two strikes. I was just trying to see something up. My mind was saying, ‘Hang a splitter,’ but I just got something up in the zone that I could handle.”

Handle it he did. Napoli pulled the trigger, whipping his barrel through the zone and managing to send a dart whistling through the air, just over the right field fence and into the first row of seats for an opposite-field homer, his 10th of the year, that offered the decisive margin in the Sox’ 2-1 victory. It was Napoli‘s third homer of the year in a two-strike count, a situation in which he’s hitting .225 with a .355 OBP and .319 slugging mark — all well above the American League averages of .180/.251/.269 with two strikes.

An improved two-strike approach was a focal point for Napoli entering the year, and to date, he’s enjoyed considerable success, hitting .275 with a .390 OBP and .459 slugging mark through 62 games.

“It’s much-improved,” manager John Farrell said of Napoli’s approach with two strikes. “He’€™s used the whole field. He shortened up a number of at-bats with two strikes ‘€“ I can’€™t say that was the case tonight because he drives one out of the ballpark but that’€™s just a testament to his overall strength.”

Of course, while Napoli has worked to improve in two-strike counts, he couldn’t conceal his surprise that Tanaka offered him a fastball — even shaking off catcher Brian McCann — to get to that pitch in that situation. As he ran back to the dugout while celebrating, the Sox slugger was caught by cameras yelling, “What an idiot!” presumably in reaction to the pitch selection (video above).

With the blast, Napoli continued to make himself very much at home in Yankee Stadium. Since the start of 2013, Napoli has more homers (6) at Yankee Stadium than any other visiting player, hitting .322 with a .394 OBP and .678 slugging mark.

“Nap has come up big with some late inning heroics with a ball out of the ballpark over the last couple of years whether it’€™s been here or home against New York,” noted Farrell.

And for a Red Sox team desperate for wins as they try to claw back into the middle of the American League East, his timing couldn’t have been any more ideal.

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