Napoli's game-winning blast off Verlander erases postseason struggles
DETROIT -- It was a getaway day afternoon game between the Angels and Tigers in 2006, and Mike Napoli will never forget it. Digging in for his first big league plate appearance, Napoli saw three pitches out of Justin Verlander's right hand, then launched the fourth into the left-field bullpen at Comerica Park.
Seven years later, Napoli has an even better moment to treasure; same ballpark, same opposing pitcher, just the entire baseball world watching. Napoli's seventh-inning home run accounted for the only run as the Red Sox defeated the Tigers, 1-0, in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series on Tuesday, giving Boston a 2-1 lead in the series.
"I was here for the first homer, too. It was pretty cool," said Red Sox winning pitcher John Lackey, one of Napoli's teammates with the Angels. "I remember that, for sure. He got called up and hit one off Verlander on a curveball. And I said, 'We need that dude, keep him around here.'"
The Red Sox are saying the same thing. Napoli may not have contributed much this postseason, but he has a reputation as a streaky hitter who can carry a lineup when he catches the right wave.
Just ask the 2011 Rangers; had Texas been able to finish off the Cardinals, it's quite likely that Napoli would have a World Series MVP Award stashed somewhere in his home.
So despite his quiet October continuing with two strikeouts to open Game 3, dropping his postseason performance to 2-for-19 (.105) with 10 strikeouts, Napoli said there was no panic as he stepped in against Verlander for his third at-bat of the night.
"I've been feeling comfortable. I'm not searching for anything," Napoli said. "For me, it's just being on time. Going to that at-bat, he got me twice early in the game; threw me four sliders, which he's never done to me before.
"But I just kept on going at it. I put a good at-bat together. I was able to get it to 3-2, and got a pitch I could handle."
That pitch was a 96-mph fastball, a little above the belt and down the middle. Even with the wind blowing in from left field, Napoli showed off the kind of power that the Red Sox have been keeping the lights on for.
"He's put up big numbers for us, and along with that comes some strikeouts," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "Those have been present during the series and all season long. But when he gets into that stretch run where he's on the right side of streakiness, he can carry us -- and he has carried us.
"Whether it's September or back in April for the first five, six weeks of the season, we can't turn away from a guy that's got that in his resume or his track record, just because he's in a little bit of a downturn."
Besides, Napoli's history against Verlander was solid; he came into Game 3 owning a 7-for-23 (.304) mark against the former Cy Young Award winner, a track record that started with that plate appearance right here in '06.
"Obviously, I'll never forget that, being my first at-bat," Napoli said. "I remember it being a day game and me being really tired that day, got the call from Salt Lake City. He's definitely grown. I've definitely grown. You just have to make adjustments.
"He didn't really throw too much of a slider back then, he threw really hard, threw a curveball, had a good changeup. We all watch video, we all get game plans and you kind of have a plan of what he's going to do to you, what he's done in the past. That's what I go off."
Tigers catcher Alex Avila toyed with the idea of going to a third straight slider on the 3-2 pitch, but Verlander chose to attack Napoli with his fastball, a decision he'd regret.
"Having faced him a couple of times already, I knew he wasn't seeing the fastball that great," Verlander said. "I decided to challenge him, and I made a little bit of a mistake. It was a little bit up and over the middle. You have to give him credit."
Back on the eve of the ALCS at Fenway, several members of the Red Sox were talking about how if Napoli catches one of his famous streaks, it would do a great deal to provide protection for David Ortiz in Boston's lineup.
It didn't work out exactly as anyone would have predicted, considering how Detroit's starting pitchers have dominated in the first three games, but now Ortiz and Napoli have both contributed huge home runs that have tipped the balance of the series in Boston's favor.
"Every game is big. You come out and you prepare," Napoli said. "You get a game plan. I'm just trying to execute. I mean, every season is different. Every playoff game is different. You've got to go out, and whatever the situation is, you've got to try to execute. It's different, but we got a nice win tonight."