Game-changer: Walk-off win highlights Mike Napoli's significance for Red Sox going forward

July 21, 2013 - 11:06 pm

Mike Napoli cranked a CC Sabathia delivery into the warm July night, tying the game, and it appeared that Boston'€™s right-handed power bat was back.

Fast-forward five innings. With the bases loaded, the Yankees pitched around David Ortiz to get to Napoli. But, with a chance to put the Sox ahead going into the last frame, Napoli bounced into a 6-4-3 double play.

'€œYeah, I know. I had a chance I think in the eighth to put a run across -- hit a fly ball, a sac fly or something -- but hit into a double play," Napoli noted after Sunday night/Monday morning's game. '€œThat's what's great about this game. You always get another chance. I was glad I was up there and got an opportunity to make up for it."

The right-handed slugger did just that, launching an Adam Warren offering on a 3-2 count with two outs in the 11th inning over the center field wall for an 8-7 win over the Yankees.

This was the boom-or-bust, middle-of-the-order slugger whom the Red Sox made their top priority at the start of the season, a player with the ability to launch prodigious home runs even while producing his fair share of strikeouts (and walks). But the game also offered a reminder of what Napoli has not been of late.

And after a hot start in April where he held a .529 slugging percentage while belting four home runs and driving in 27 runs, Napoli cooled off drastically. Since a June 1 grand slam in the Bronx, Napoli held a batting average of .235 with a .339 slugging percentage, hitting just two home runs and driving in only 14.

Napoli has struck out 127 times on the season. That kind of volume of strikeouts means that, invariably, he's going to go through lengthy cold spells. Still, it'€™s shows of power such as the one that took place on Sunday night -- in which Napoli launched his 12th and 13th homers of the year, but also grounded into a key double play and struck out three times -- that resulted in Napoli having a spot in the heart of the Red Sox order. The Sox are willing to live with the extremes in order to get the rewards of his considerable raw power.

'€œYeah, I guess that'€™s a snapshot somewhat of his career path. We know and certainly live with some swing and miss. The ability to drive the ball out of the ballpark to all fields is present every time he steps into the batters box," manager John Farrell said after watching Napoli's blast to straightaway center give his team its 20th series victory of the season. "In general, he'€™s the type of player you'€™re gonna live and die with that type of approach.'€

Sunday night highlighted the importance of Napoli'€™s power and production. When Ortiz missed much of April due to injury, Napoli'€™s bat essentially powered the Red Sox lineup. And when Ortiz returned to action, he was intentionally walked just four times, up until June 1. Since then, however, with Napoli slumping, opposing pitchers have exploited his struggles and have intentionally walked Ortiz a total of 10 times.

However, the offensive explosion Sunday night could point to a hot stretch ahead for Napoli. If so, then a Sox offense that entered Sunday struggling against lefties to the tune of a .255 average (sixth in the AL), .331 OBP (third) and .395 slugging mark (seventh) and 25 homers (tied for ninth) -- as opposed to an AL-leading average (.287), OBP (.357) and slugging mark (.464) against righties -- stands to benefit considerably.

'€œHe'€™s a dangerous bat,'€ Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said of Napoli. '€œHe'€™s a guy that everybody fears. He can do some damage at any point. He picked us up big early in the game and then picked us up big at the end.'€

That is something that Napoli has been doing with increased frequency of late. In his last 12 games dating to July 4, he's now hitting .255/.340/.617 with four homers. If Napoli can continue to drive the baseball and function as a run producer in the heart of the Red Sox lineup, the impact could well exceed anything the team could acquire on the trade market. The veteran is streaky, but the Sox would no doubt love to ride the wave of one of his hot streaks going forward.

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