Monday, April 8, 2013
Daniel Nava's delayed gratification
By Gordon Edes ESPNBoston.com
BOSTON -- If you haven't played in a big league home opener before the age of 30, chances are you might never get the chance.
But Daniel Nava has always been on his own schedule. Unrecruited out of high school. A college career that began as a student manager. Undrafted by the pros but signed out of an independent league, he arrived in the big leagues three years ago with a grand slam on the first pitch he saw, then had it all taken away just months later.
He worked his way back last season, and at age 30, Nava began this season on an Opening Day roster for the first time, as a backup at a new position (first base) and a platoon partner in left field. On Monday, he found out what all the fuss was about when he experienced the pomp and circumstance of a splendid, if understated, Fenway Park home opener, one in which the team's 60-year relationship with the Jimmy Fund cancer foundation was celebrated.
Then he provided the cloudless, 60-degree afternoon with its signature moment, a majestic three-run home run over the Monster that broke a scoreless tie and gave the Sox a 3-1 victory over the Baltimore Orioles before a sellout (you didn't expect anything else, did you?) crowd of 37,008 on Yawkey Way.
"Yeah," he said, "it was definitely all that it was cranked up to be, that's for sure.
Daniel Nava watches his three-run homer clear the Green Monster.
"Opening Day is a special experience to begin with, and for me it's special just with the journey and stuff I've taken. Obviously, I wasn't trying to hit a home run. It just worked out like that."
The victory was Boston's ninth straight in home openers, a streak in which the Sox have outscored the opposition 70-26. It also ran their record this season to 5-2 and vindicated a lineup decision by Sox manager John Farrell that hardly played to popular sentiment.
Nava's home run made a winner of Clay Buchholz, who allowed just three hits while striking out eight over seven innings for his second win of the young season. Andrew Bailey worked a scoreless eighth and Joel Hanrahan, in his Fenway debut, allowed a leadoff home run by Adam Jones and a two-out double by J.J. Hardy before nailing down his third save in the ninth.
Farrell elected to play Nava instead of rookie Jackie Bradley Jr., the player the home crowd undoubtedly was most anxious to see after he cracked the big league roster at age 22, just a year removed from Class A ball. Bradley had started each of the team's first six games in left field, figured prominently in last week's Opening Day win over the Yankees with his hustle, defense and selectivity at the plate, and was already recognizable by a catchy handle, JBJ.
When camp started in February, no one in the Sox organization was talking about Bradley being on the big league club. But then David Ortiz was slow to recover from his Achilles injury, Bradley had an electric camp and general manager Ben Cherington decided the club could use the boost Bradley could potentially bring.
Nava could have been forgiven for raising his hand and asking, "Hey, what about me?" At the least, he was asked Monday, it created uncertainty for him, did it not?
"It didn't change a thing," he said. "I've tried not to look at other people's situations and let it affect mine, and I think I guess that's the nature of the road I've taken. I've been in this situation before so it didn't really bother me.
"I was happy for him. I think we all were. It's a great story, and he's obviously a great player and he's done a lot to open up everyone's eyes. I was happy for him. I wasn't worried how it impacted me, because if I was in his shoes I'd want them to be happy for me rather than think, 'That guy is taking playing time away from me.' That wasn't how I went about it."
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Friday night in Toronto, Bradley reached base three times in a 6-4 Sox win on a single, error and walk. The last two games, however, Bradley had failed to get the ball out of the infield in eight plate appearances, whiffing four times. Farrell decided that with Bradley hitting 1-for-12 with 5 K's against lefties and the Orioles starting another left-hander, Wei-Yin Chen, he would opt for the switch-hitting Nava, giving him another bat from the right side.
Nava had hit just .185 against lefties last season, but had encouraging results in spring training, where he was given a number of at-bats early against lefties. "When gearing up, I just thought to relax more and make sure I applied what I do on the left side to what I do on the right side," he said.
Sunday night on the flight back from Toronto, Farrell and bench coach Torey Lovullo told him he'd be playing left field the next day. Bradley played the role of extra, receiving a warm greeting from the crowd when introduced. Nava, meanwhile, wound up the headliner. He walked in the second and grounded a single into left in the fifth, one of only two Boston hits as the team batted in the seventh, the game still scoreless.
But Dustin Pedroia singled, Mike Napoli doubled and after Will Middlebrooks struck out, Nava came to the plate, the crowd eager to roar the way it hadn't since Pedro Martinez was introduced before the game.
"Knowing that the shadows were in play, I wasn't sure how I was going to pick the ball up," he said. "The first ball, I fouled off a little late on. I think they read into that and thought they could come inside on me. Fortunately they left it over the middle, and what happened is what happened. It worked out."
Somehow, in the end, it always has for Nava, despite the many false starts, and the disappointment of being outrighted off the big league roster a year after making it. That's the journey he is speaking about, the one he is still taking, the one which has left him with a deeper appreciation than most.
"It's been a good journey," he said. "Hopefully, obviously, it's not over.
"I'm really grateful for another opportunity, another chance to play. I try to keep that mentality.
"And hopefully whatever happens in the future, that's something I don't forget."