Despite quiet start to playoffs, slugger confident in ability to find groove
BOSTON -- It looked like he had found the brightest part of Fenway Park, but as Mike Napoli quickly realized, abundant sunshine still can feel a bit chilly when you strip off your shirt for a sunbathing session on an autumn New England afternoon.
Napoli soon scooped up the towel he'd laid at the back of the mound and returned to his more normal ballpark attire. Yet as he reclined there with a grin, the Red Sox's slugger was a perfect image of relaxation one day before his team faces the Tigers in the American League Championship Series.
"We have fun like that, but if you watch us when we go out for batting practice and take ground balls, everyone is in tune and working on their game," Napoli said. "When the time comes, we know when to turn it on and be serious and get after it on the field."
Napoli wasn't the only one enjoying himself as the Sox reported to Fenway for Friday's workout; while Napoli lounged on the back of the hill that Jon Lester will climb for Saturday's ALCS Game 1, teammate Ryan Dempster was pelting golf balls around the outfield from the third-base dugout.
Contrasted with the bleary-eyed gazes of the Tigers players and staff, who had to take their AL Division Series the distance with the Athletics just to punch a ticket to Boston, the Red Sox looked like they were living it up.
"We're having fun, man," Jonny Gomes said. "This is a unique situation where it feels like family. It doesn't feel like a team. It doesn't feel like teammates. It feels like brothers."
And so on the list of possible concerns the Red Sox might have about taking on the defending AL champions, Napoli's playoff statistics are not ranked all that highly.
Napoli has a reputation for catching fire and carrying a club -- the Red Sox have seen it at times this year, when he hit .259 with 23 homers and 92 RBIs in 139 games, and the Rangers benefited from his torrid 2011 postseason.
Though Napoli was kept quiet during the ALDS, going 2-for-13 (.154) against Rays pitching, he doesn't seem concerned.
"I feel good with my swing," Napoli said. "I feel there were pitches that I got to drive, and I just missed them. I felt like I put some good at-bats together, I got some walks, so I feel good where I'm at right now."
Napoli's four walks were second on the team only to David Ortiz's five. Having Napoli doing damage would figure to be an assist for Big Papi, but Red Sox manager John Farrell said Napoli's playoff sample size against Tampa Bay was too small to worry about.
"I can say that we went up against a very good pitching staff which shut a few of our guys down," Farrell said. "The uniqueness of playing Tampa in the first round with the number of games played and the familiarity, they know how to attack our guys and vice versa.
"I think pitching is always going to have the upper hand when you have a clear-cut plan and you've got a lot of history against a given opponent -- an individual guy or a team. Mike has been a key member of this offense and will continue to be so going forward."
Back in that 2011 postseason, when Napoli said that he was able to reduce the game to seeing the ball and hitting it, everything clicked right. He hit .328 (19-for-58) with three home runs and 15 RBIs for Texas, with two of the homers and 10 of the RBIs coming in the World Series.
"Sometimes as a baseball player, everything is right," Napoli said. "Your timing is right, you get your foot down and that's what you try to prepare for every day. You take your batting practice, your cage work, to get to that point where you feel really good going into the game."
Napoli has received credit for fine-tuning his defensive prowess at first base, and deservedly so. But Gomes pointed out that Napoli's abilities at the plate can complicate the game for opposing managers, making a difference in how they view the offense.
"You can't [defensively] shift Napoli. He's got power to all fields," Gomes said. "I always talk about that, just something simple as that to where you can't shift Napoli -- that says a ton about what type of hitter he is."
And if Napoli catches the right wave, he can tilt Boston's odds greatly, Red Sox catcher David Ross said.
"At any given time, some of those guys can get hot, but Nap especially hitting behind David -- he's a big part of that," Ross said. "If he gets hot, I like our chances."
Napoli knows how it should feel. Now, it's just a matter of catching that streak.
"We do it over an eight-month period, trying to get into that groove and stay in that groove," Napoli said. "As an athlete, when you get into that zone where you're feeling really good, it's where you want to be."