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Friday, May 9, 2014
Napoli excelling at 1B with more experience

By Gordon Edes

The fastest man in baseball had just laid down a perfect bunt that hugged the dirt along the foul line, the runner a red blur headed toward first base. In a split second, Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli had to decide whether to field the ball or let it go foul. He elected to grab it, whirl around and find a way to hit the glove of second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who was waiting at first, without striking the runner, Billy Hamilton of the Reds.

Napoli didn't hesitate. He threaded a throw just over Hamilton's right shoulder and into Pedroia's mitt, a half-step ahead of the base-runner.

Mike Napoli
Mike Napoli continues to flash impressive range and throwing ability at first base.
"A tight window -- No. 12 to Edelman," Napoli said with a smile the next night. "'Butter' will love that one. Brady to Edelman, through a tight window."

"Butter" is Brian Butterfield, the Red Sox third-base coach and infield instructor whose passion for the NFL's Patriots is well-known throughout the clubhouse. He would have enthusiastically embraced Napoli's comparison to Pats quarterback Tom Brady hitting Julian Edelman with a pass.

But forget about the football analogy for a moment. The play would have been special by the standards of an experienced Gold Glove first baseman. That it had been executed so seamlessly by a guy who had been a catcher most of his career just shows how far Napoli has come at his adopted position.

"Sneaky athletic ability, man," Napoli said. "People will have to stop looking at me as just a guy who used to be a catcher."

Napoli had played first base in parts of three seasons prior to coming to Boston, including his two seasons in Texas, where he played a total of 63 games at first base before signing with the Red Sox as a free agent. Even before he came to camp with his first baseman's mitt, the Sox were convinced he could be their everyday first baseman, which became a permanent calling card when it was determined that a degenerative hip condition had brought an end to his days behind the plate.

Napoli will tell you he misses catching, at least the part that required him to be engaged on every single pitch. The physical demands of the position, he doesn't miss those, and after playing an above-average first base for the Sox last season -- one defensive metric showed him saving the Sox 10 runs in 2013, the most by any American League first baseman -- he appears bent on taking his game to an even higher level.

The night after executing the bunt play on Hamilton, Napoli began an acrobatic double play in which he backhanded Roger Bernadina's smash down the line, stepped on the bag and while off-balance made another perfect throw. And while he is listed at 6-feet, 220 pounds, he has demonstrated a knack for going airborne to grab line drives, showing a better vertical leap than his profile suggests.

"I'm really comfortable over there now," he said. "I feel like I can make any play. If I can get to a ball, I feel like I can make a play over there."

His confidence shows in how far off the bag he is willing to play, depending on where Pedroia is positioned at second. And while he may not be quite as aggressive as former Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who was supremely confident in his ability to throw across the diamond to cut down the advance runner, Napoli isn't far behind.

When Napoli was with the Angels, his manager, Mike Scioscia, was a former catcher who wanted Napoli to focus more on his catching than his hitting. Napoli, who has always been a bat-first guy, is freed of such obligations with the Sox, but has become an even better two-way player than they anticipated.

His performance at the plate certainly hasn't suffered. Going into Texas -- where the Rangers made such a strong bid to sign him back, Sox players were calling the front office, demanding that the team keep him -- Napoli has reached base in 30 of the 31 games in which he has played, including a career-high 28 straight. His .417 on-base percentage entering Thursday ranked third in the AL, behind Shin-Soo Choo of the Rangers (.481) and Jose Bautista of the Jays (.450).

Napoli is generous with his credit toward Butterfield, who is even happier hitting ground balls to his infielders and teaching them the nuances of their positions than he would be standing on a blocking sled being shoved by behemoth defensive linemen.

"Working with Butter, the confidence he gives me, I listen to him all the time," Napoli said. "He just makes me feel good.

"I just feel like I believe in myself that I can make those plays. I feel I'm a lot more athletic than people think I am. I'm confident over there. I think people seeing me doing that kind of stuff over there, they can't believe it."

You can be in the big leagues for nine seasons, as Napoli has, and still reap the benefits of positive reinforcement. But it goes beyond that.

"I try to get better over there every day," he said. "My preparation, I work at it. It's not just that I'm doing it."