DETROIT — Mike Napoli is paying the Red Sox back for all those years he tortured them with his bat.
When he was in other uniforms in Southern California and Texas, Napoli feasted on the Sons of Fenway to the tune of 15 home runs, which prior to this season was the most he had hit against any team in his big league career.
It seemed like every time you looked up Napoli was bludgeoning a baseball against Boston. Now, instead of his homers being heartbreakers or expletive-producers, they have the Red Sox one win away from the World Series.
Napoli staked the Sox to an early lead with a prodigious home run in the second inning and ended up scoring the winning run in the third, when he alertly came home on a wild pitch by Tigers starter Anibal Sanchez.
Napoli’s night and the Red Sox’ penurious bullpen were enough to earn a 4-3 victory Thursday night in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series at Comerica Park.
The bearded band of brothers now returns to Boston with a 3-2 series lead, needing to win just one game in the Fens to cap a remarkable turnaround, going from last place in the American League East to champions of the American League.
Of course, they have to do it against Tigers aces Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander.
It would be nice if Staples could send a couple of those easy buttons over to 4 Yawkey Way.
It’s hard not to look ahead with the Sox on the brink of the World Series, but you have to look back at what happened in the three games in Detroit to appreciate it.
The Sox took two of three in Motown, both times winning by a single run, and Napoli’s signature was all over both nailbiting wins.
Some guys are mistake hitters. They can only feast on bad pitches and bad pitchers. Napoli has earned a reputation as a guy, who when he is on, can hit the best pitchers in the game. That’s what he did here, taking Verlander deep in Game 3, and Sanchez, the AL ERA champion, in Game 5.
Napoli was the difference in Game 3, with his homer off Verlander the lone run of the game. He was the difference Thursday night, going 3 for 4 with two runs and an RBI.
In Game 5, Napoli crushed a Sanchez pitch to lead off the second, sending it so far it should have been packing a passport and cash for the Windsor, Ontario, casinos. The ball landed deep into the topiary that serves as the batters’ backdrop in center field at Comerica. The homer turned out to be the start of a three-run inning for the Sox.
“Off the bat you knew he got it good, but where we saw it land, obviously, he’s got tremendous power,” said Red Sox manager John Farrell. “I don’t know if it relaxed us or it gave us an injection of life . . . We talked about some streakiness. He is in one of those good streaks right now. He has the ability to carry us.”
Barrel-chested with a bushy beard, Napoli looks like a lumberjack. He certainly knows what to do with wood.
During the regular season, he batted .259 with 23 home runs and 92 runs batted in, both of the latter totals trailing only David Ortiz on the Red Sox.
But Napoli is more than just a one-dimensional slugger, something he has proven all season.
A full-time first baseman for the first time in his career, Napoli has been a pleasant surprise with his defensive dexterity, especially considering he has a degenerative hip condition.
Napoli was originally supposed to sign a three-year, $39 million contract with the Sox, but the deal was reduced to one-year, $5 million with incentives after the Sox discovered Napoli had avascular necrosis in his hips. Napoli got the additional $8 million in incentives by being on the active roster for at least 165 days.
Napoli came up with a key defensive play in the sixth on an inning-ending double play, digging out Dustin Pedroia’s relay, as the Sox cut off a Tiger rally at one run, making it 4-2.
“He has done an outstanding job,” said Farrell. “There were a number of balls in the dirt tonight on the double plays that he picked. I can’t say that he’s surpassed our expectations, but clearly he has transitioned flawlessly to first.”
No one will ever confuse Napoli with Jacoby Ellsbury, but he made an astute base-running play that ended up being the difference in the game. In the third inning, Napoli roped a ground-rule double to left. He was at third with two outs and Stephen Drew at the plate, when Sanchez uncorked a 57-footer.
Napoli never hesitated. He raced home with what ended up being the decisive run.
“I’m always ready. It’s a weird play,” said Napoli. “It’s something that rarely happens, but you’ve always got to be ready for it. [Third base coach Brian Butterfield] is always in my ear to be ready for a ball in the dirt. We were talking earlier about 90 feet can win you a ballgame. That definitely helped us tonight.”
Napoli is the epitome of the old saw about speaking softly and carrying a big stick. He is the strong, silent type.
He wasn’t much for reliving his monster home run in detail or being on the verge of playing in the World Series for the second time in three seasons.
He made a statement in Detroit.
Now, it’s the turn of Tigers fans to curse his name and his long home runs.
We feel your pain, Detroit. But it feels so good to be on Mike Napoli’s good side.