Mike Napoli's powerful journey to 'uncharted territory'

October 18, 2013 - 1:40 am
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DETROIT -- Behold (again) the mighty hammer of Thor. Mike Napoli is once again wielding the sledgehammer in the postseason, at a time that could not be more opportune for the Red Sox. The 31-year-old is living up to the billing as a game-changing middle-of-the-order force, reclaiming a role that he's fulfilled during the Sox' best stretches of the year. His solo homer to left on Tuesday proved the decisive blast in the Sox' 1-0 victory over Justin Verlander and the Tigers in Game 3 of the ALCS. But on Thursday, in Game 5 of the series, he took that performance to jaw-dropping new heights in the Sox' 4-3 win over the Tigers, leading his team to a 3-2 advantage in the best-of-seven series, one win from a spot in the World Series. He went 3-for-4, a performance that included a double and two runs scored, but it was one mammoth mash that proved the game's most memorable moment. In the top of the second inning, Napoli launched led off with a home run to dead center that not only gave the Sox a 1-0 lead against Tigers starter Anibal Sanchez -- the pitcher who held the Sox hitless through six shutout innings in Game 1 of the ALDS -- but that also proved little short of awe-inspiring. The center field fence in Comerica Park resides 420 feet from home plate. It's rarely cleared. But Napoli not only hit a ball over that target -- he blew well past it, with his projectile landing atop a second tier of hedges that helps to create a batter's eye in straightaway center field. "Not too many people hit balls like that," noted Jonny Gomes. "If you break it down to how many people in this world can do that, you'€™re not going to come up with too many. That'€™s pretty impressive." According to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, Napoli's launch traveled 460 feet. That was the longest homer in the postseason, according to the same site, since Prince Fielder likewise launched a 460-foot homer five years earlier, in 2008. A pair of Napoli's teammates who spent time with the Tigers were in a state of near-shock that a player could hit a ball that far, particularly given that the gametime temperature was a raw 51 degrees. "When it landed, I couldn't believe it," said Sox pitcher Andrew Miller, who pitched in Detroit in 2006 and 2007. "That's usually uncharted territory. That's pretty impressive. That's out there." "Only person I've seen hit a ball like that over there is [Miguel Cabrera]," noted Sox outfielder Quintin Berry, who played much of last year with the Tigers. "That's it. Unbelievable, ain't it? "The wind was blowing a little bit to the left, across. To put that ball up there, hit that up there that high and stick it into the branches like that is unbelievable. He's got stupid pop though. I've watched him for the last month and a half, and I've never seen a guy hit a ball as far as he does with his wrists. That ball just keeps going. It's unbelievable." Napoli has an extensive history of postseason dominance, including his two-homer game against Josh Beckett and the Red Sox as a member of the Angels in 2008 and a breathtaking performance (.350/.464/.700 with two homers and 10 RBI) in seven games of the 2011 World Series with the Rangers against the Cardinals. He's now delivering a comparable impact for the Red Sox in the ALCS. He's 6-for-16 with a walk, two doubles and two homers, good for a .375/.412/.875 line. He now has extra-base hits in three straight games. "I've been feeling good all series," said Napoli. "I can't really put my finger on it. I'm just going up there trying to give a tough at-bat every time. I got some pitches that I could handle." Yet he was not merely a one-dimensional masher. Napoli also contributed with his legs -- running aggressively after his double, advancing to third on a comebacker and then getting a great read on a wild pitch that Sanchez skipped to the plate to score the Sox' fourth run, which ultimately offered the game's final margin of victory. "To me, equal to the home run was his base running," suggested Sox manager John Farrell. "He gets the double. He goes -- advances a throw on a tapper back to the mound and his instincts on the wild pitch, it ended up being a difference maker tonight, the base running, all the way around." His defense, too, was strong, whether handling some smashes in his direction or digging the throws of teammates out of the dirt. Yet it was his ability to destroy pitches with a sledgehammer that truly captured the imaginations of his teammates. "He's obviously picked us up in big situations throughout the season. And tonight was another one of those situations, picking us up 1-0 right there off a pretty good pitcher," said Jon Lester. "It's a big yard to go in that park, and he made this yard look small with that swing." "I've never seen a ball hit that hard -- ever. That ball was crushed, especially since it was rainy and cold. It was unbelievable," added David Ortiz. "It was disgusting. I've never seen a ball hit that hard and that far. That's Nap, man. When he puts a good swing on the ball, it's a no-doubter."

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