BOSTON -- After John Lackey's gem Thursday night officially ushered the Red Sox into the postseason for the first time since 2009, many comparisons were made between his journey back from a pair of miserable years and the organization's own rise from the ashes.
And with good reason. Lackey's turnaround in many ways mirrors that of the team.
A similar comparison could be made with Daniel Nava, whose ability to navigate through the muck of 2011 and 2012 before breaking out in 2013 speaks to the resiliency that many in the organization have required to make a full transition from laughingstock to American League East champions.
Nava was a fresh-faced Independent League survivor whose first-pitch grand slam in 2010 came before the organization would begin a roller-coaster ride of epic proportions. That was before injuries sapped that talented 2010 team. It was before the front office reloaded with names that made someone like Nava even more of an afterthought than he already was, spending the entire 2011 season in the minors. It was before that uber-talented squad flushed its chances down the toilet with an inept September. And it was before the Bobby Valentine-led 2012 Red Sox, with Nava still a bit player, crumbled into pieces.
When it was time to forge ahead in the spring, the Sox brought in veteran free agents, two of whom played the outfield, and groomed a future star outfielder, in the eyes of many, in Jackie Bradley Jr. Nava? Well, he was there, but still just a depth piece, if he even made the team. He was far removed from that glorious grand slam moment, no longer in his 20s. Nary a soul saw him as a central figure in the club's biggest turnaround in 67 years.
Yet there he was Friday night after the Red Sox clinched the American League East, soaking up a moment that was difficult for him to comprehend.
"It's huge for me. It's too much for me," said Nava, who had two hits and scored two runs in the 6-3 triumph over the Toronto Blue Jays. "From Indy ball, to this? Are you kidding me?"
Nava uttered these words while standing near first base, holding his daughter of one month, Faith, and smiling ear to ear at the antics of his wild teammates, who sprayed one another with beer and champagne. The sight of an AL East champ holding such a precious gift amid a raucous scene was notable. Then again, so much of Nava's journey, which has been told many times, is notable.
While hard work has most definitely paid off, Nava has full recognition of how fortunate he has been.
"I said it from the get-go and I'll say it again: To have this opportunity, I thank the Red Sox," he said. "They gave me a chance and I'm so grateful."
Not only did they give him that chance by wresting him from the Chico Outlaws in 2008 and bringing him up in 2010, but they recognized the value a guy like Nava had on the current squad, even if on the surface it did not seem as if there was an immediate fit for him on the big league roster. Six months later, he is flirting with a .300 season, is ranked second on the team in on-base percentage and is an invaluable part of a flexible, deep roster that has seen him play plenty at three positions.
Nava admits that during those uncertain days in February and March, he did not envision an end result like that.
"I never did. Partly because I didn't know I was going to make the team out of spring training," he said. "I didn't know my exact role coming out of spring training, so just to have the opportunity to play left, right, first, I think that was something that I wanted, to play as much as I can and they've given me the opportunity to play a lot."
Another reason Nava is as good a candidate as any to serve as the symbol of the 2013 Red Sox is the manner in which he quickly thrust aside those uncertainties and made it obvious right off the bat that this was a different year. He started out on fire, and just 12 games into the season had four home runs, 14 RBIs and a .342 average. That helped fuel Boston's quick start, which in turn helped erase whatever sting remained from 2012.
And it was Nava who might have provided the biggest emotional boost of the young season when he hammered a go-ahead three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth to lift the Sox to a win over Kansas City on April 20, their first game following the Boston Marathon bombings. A man who had experienced the ups and downs of the organization as much as anyone over the previous three years and was thought to be on the outside looking in during spring training had given a city, much less his team, exactly what it needed in one of its most trying times.
That hit, as much as anything, speaks to the spirit of the 2013 Red Sox, who turned a seemingly random collection of players into a force that forged a new love affair with its city. And one of the unlikely central figures was a one-time cast-off with a daughter named Faith.