Mike Napoli stands in front of his locker, his now-trademark beard enveloping his chin and neck. Along with his barrel chest and big biceps, Napoli looks like he’d be more at home in a flannel shirt than a uniform jersey.
If not for his baseball skills, Napoli could pass for a soft-spoken, old-time lumberjack, ready to level the woods with his ax.
Instead he holds a bat in his hands, and look at the damage that bat does.
“Disgusting,” David Ortiz said.
In Ortiz lingo that was a compliment he paid Napoli on Thursday night, as in “Did you see how far Napoli hit that home run?”
Napoli’s home run in Detroit sailed high over the center-field wall, estimated to travel 460 feet.
The distance didn’t impress him.
“It really doesn’t matter to me,” Napoli said. “It can go in the first row for all I care, you know.
“I was in a hitter’s count. I was looking for a fastball and I got a pitch I could handle.”
The process matters more to Napoli, 31, an intense student of the game who studies every pitcher during every at-bat.
What Manager John Farrell appreciated was the timing of Napoli’s homer. The Red Sox were facing Anibal Sanchez, who had no-hit the Red Sox for six innings the last time he faced them.
Plus, Boston hadn’t scored in the first five innings of any game during this American League Championship Series, against the vaunted Tigers rotation.
Napoli gave Boston a 1-0 lead in the second inning.
“I don’t know if it relaxed us or it gave us an injection of life,” Farrell said. “Following the home run he hit the other day (the game-winner in Tuesday’s Game 3) … He’s in one of those good streaks right now.
“He has the ability to carry us.”
Anyone want to complain about the strikeouts now?
Napoli whiffs a lot. He set a Red Sox record with 187 this year. Napoli often looks as if he has no clue in the batter’s box but it’s quite the opposite. Napoli is seeing pitches and trying to figure it out.
“I get into the game and see what’s going on,” Napoli said. “I have a scouting report (on the pitchers) but it doesn’t mean they’re going to do that to you.”
Napoli led the league in pitches seen per plate appearance (4.59). In watching so many pitches, Napoli not only drives up the number from the opposing pitcher but works the count, hopefully in his favor
In the second inning Thursday, Sanchez fell behind 3-and-1. His slider wasn’t hitting the corners so he threw a fastball, which Napoli launched.
Napoli said he doesn’t like striking out – “I try to put the ball in play. (The strikeouts) just happen sometimes” – but Farrell isn’t concerned about Napoli or anyone else.
“Because we get deep in the count we’re going to hit with two strikes a lot. Strikeouts will come,” Farrell said. “You take the good with the bad.
“We don’t want (Napoli) in the box feeling he has to protect. Otherwise he might not hit a ball 400 feet.”
That reference was to Napoli’s home run Tuesday, off a 3-2 Justin Verlander fastball in the 1-0 win over Detroit.
A clutch hitter, Napoli reminds you of Mark Bellhorn, Boston’s second baseman in 2004. Bellhorn used to hold the strikeout record (177). He also hit three home runs in the playoffs as the Red Sox won the World Series.
Napoli, a stronger version of Bellhorn, has Boston on the doorstep of another World Series.
“We’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves,” Napoli said. “We’re in a good position now but we’ve got business to take care of.”
That level-headedness and experience make Napoli one of the clubhouse leaders.
The Red Sox got quite a deal when they signed him. Initially a three-year agreement, the contract was knocked down to one because of concern over the health of Napoli’s hip.
That concern eliminated any thoughts of Napoli catching. He is strictly a first baseman and has turned himself into quite a good one. Napoli, whose hip hasn’t bothered him all year, is nimble at first base. He dug out a few low throws Thursday to save outs.
“It’s unbelievable to see him go about his work every day,” pitcher Jon Lester said. “He busted his butt in spring training to become an incredible first baseman for us.”
And Napoli showed another part of his game Thursday – running the bases. After hitting a ground-rule double in the third inning, Napoli advanced to third on a grounder back to Sanchez. He then came home on a wild pitch, scoring what would become the winning run.
“He ended up being the difference maker,” Farrell said.
Just flat-out disgusting.
Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or: