- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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DETROIT -- Mike Napoli has, by acclamation, the coolest beard on the Boston Red Sox roster. It's a thick and lustrous creation, impervious to combs, garden implements or anything short of a machete at this stage of its evolution. Only David Ross's amazing salt-and-pepper combination comes close on the team's 25-man roster.
Fans might be generally unaware of this, but Napoli is also the poster boy for those marathon games that ruin umpire Joe West's late dinner plans and make NESN watchers bleary-eyed with fatigue. Napoli led the major leagues this season with 4.59 pitches per plate appearance, significantly more than the 4.30 logged by runner-up Carlos Santana of the Cleveland Indians. When it comes to taking his sweet time in the box, he laps the field.
"He's stubborn,'' Boston hitting coach Greg Colbrunn said. "That's the beauty of him. He goes up there and sticks to his approach. He knows the strike zone as well as anyone on the team, and he'll take those borderline pitches away. It's not easy to do. But he's got a plan, and he sticks to his plan every at-bat.''
Napoli's arduous self-discipline resulted in 23 homers and a .482 slugging percentage, second-best on the Boston roster behind David Ortiz, and 187 strikeouts worth of collateral damage. When Napoli is bad, he's on par with Adam Dunn, Mark Reynolds and baseball's other master breeze generators. But when he's locked in and the pitcher makes a mistake, he can send a simultaneous charge through the ball, the stands and the Boston dugout.
In a postseason this low-scoring and tightly-played, one mistake can be magnified and a confident swing can resonate beyond all proportion. That was the case in the seventh inning at Comerica Park on Tuesday, when Justin Verlander threw a fastball that caught too much of the plate, and Napoli launched it into the Boston bullpen in left-center field. The run held up, and the Red Sox beat the Tigers 1-0 to take a 2-1 lead in their best-of-seven American League Championship Series.
Verlander and Napoli had some personal history going back to their formative years in the big leagues. In 2006, Verlander won 17 games and captured the American League Rookie of the Year award. He was a first-round pick out of Old Dominion with textbook mechanics, a $3.12 million signing bonus in his pocket, and a golden ticket to stardom.
Napoli, a 17th-round pick by the Los Angeles Angels in 2000, spent six years working his way through the system as a catcher and was playing for Triple-A Salt Lake when he finally got the call on May 4, 2006. Angels manager Mike Scioscia plugged him into the starting lineup in the No. 8 spot in the batting order. And in his first big league plate appearance, Napoli took Verlander deep.
John Lackey, who started Tuesday for Boston, was in the dugout for that game and vividly remembers the encounter.
"It was pretty cool,'' Lackey said. "I remember that for sure. He got called up and hit one off Verlander on a curveball. And I said, 'We need that dude. Keep him around here.'''
Pitcher and hitter continued to meet sporadically through the years, with Verlander developing into a perennial Cy Young Award candidate in Detroit and Napoli drifting from Anaheim to Texas to Boston. Napoli entered Tuesday's game with four hits in 18 career at-bats against Verlander (.222), with that lone home run to his credit.
The latest encounter came against a backdrop that clearly seemed to be in Verlander's favor. He's been on a roll of late that's impressive even by his standards, and the Red Sox have been striking out at an alarming rate in this series. They whiffed 32 times against Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer and the Detroit bullpen in Games 1 and 2 at Fenway.
In Napoli's first plate appearance of the day, Verlander threw him four straight sliders in the 84-87 mph range. Napoli laid off one in the dirt, took two others for called strikes, and waved at the fourth for a strikeout.
In Napoli's second at-bat, Verlander threw him four fastballs and a curve. Napoli swung and missed at a 96 mph heater for his second whiff of the game.
Which led to the climactic confrontation in the seventh: Verlander got ahead 1-2 with three straight fastballs, then threw two straight sliders that Napoli laid off for balls. With the count full in a scoreless tie, what is a power pitcher with an abundance of weapons supposed to do?
Since Napoli had shown such restraint against the breaking stuff, Verlander and catcher Alex Avila agreed that the fastball was the right pitch in that situation. In hindsight, Verlander's undoing was a product of missed location rather than poor pitch selection. He tried to hit the outside corner, but the ball drifted over the middle of the plate and entered Napoli's happy zone. And just like that, Verlander allowed his first run in 34 2/3 innings, since Seattle's Justin Smoak homered against him on Sept. 18.
"Having seen him a couple of times already, I knew he wasn't seeing the fastball that great,'' Verlander said. "I decided to challenge him, and I made a little bit of a mistake. It was a little bit up and over the middle. You have to give him credit.''
Verlander obviously deserved a better fate than to lose this game. Of the 120 pitches he threw over eight innings, only two could be regarded as mistakes. He hung a breaking ball that Jonny Gomes pulled foul, and was a few inches too generous with the 96 mph fastball that Napoli crushed.
Once the count had run full, Napoli had to feel as if the confrontation was taking place on his terms. Unless Verlander suddenly unveiled a splitter or a knuckle-curve, nothing in the Detroit ace's arsenal was going to surprise him.
"I feel like the more pitches I see, the better for me,'' Napoli said. "The more I get involved in that at-bat, the more I can see. When I saw those two sliders, I felt comfortable and confident. I just wanted to be short to the ball and get a pitch that I could handle.''
Napoli is with the Red Sox on a one-year, $5 million deal after a three-year agreement was downsized because of the team's concerns about a hip condition. He's a free agent this winter, and the storyline can go in one of two directions. Maybe another club in need of right-handed power takes the plunge and lures him from Boston with something more lucrative, or the Red Sox decide he's such an integral part of the fabric of this team, he's worth bringing back on a return engagement.
The dude might be stubborn, but he's pretty darned good at his specialty. In Game 3 of the ALCS, Mike Napoli made the result well worth the wait.
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