By John Perrotto
DETROIT -- Mike Napoli is seemingly a pretty bad dude. He has the bushy beard and the ability to hit a baseball a long, long way.
However, the Boston Red Sox first baseman isn't necessarily what he seems. He really isn't such a wild man, but instead a soft-spoken and modest guy who will never be caught staring at one of his home runs.
"He's complete opposite of what I thought he was," Red Sox left-hander Jon Lester was saying Thursday night after Boston held off the Detroit Tigers 4-3 in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series at Comerica Park to take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series.
"I thought he was a pretty vocal guy, playing against him on the other side, just watching him, I thought he was kind of more, I guess, talkative, just all the way around."
Instead Napoli lets his actions do most of the speaking on the field and he continue proves to be something other than what people think. The home run he hit in the second inning on Thursday night spoke volumes of how much raw power he possesses and also set the tone for the Red Sox to get within one game of their first World Series appearance since 2007.
Napoli launched the first pitch of the inning from Tigers right-hander Anibal Sanchez -- who had held the Red Sox hitless for six innings in Game 1 last Saturday night -- an estimated 460 feet into the second tier of shrubbery beyond the center-field fence. Red Sox catcher David Ross had the best description of the blast, paraphrasing the movie "Bull Durham" by saying "it should have had a stewardess on it."
That kicked off a three-run inning and Napoli made it 4-0 in the third when he used his instincts. He doubled with one out, moved to third on Jonny Gomes' ground out, then scored on a wild pitch by Sanchez. The run turned out to be big because the Tigers wound up cutting the deficit to 4-3. Red Sox manager John Farrell seemed more impressed by that sequence of events than Napoli's rocket shot.
"To me, equal to the home run was his base running tonight," Farrell said. "He gets the double. He advances a throw on a tapper back to the mound and his instincts on the wild pitch, it ended up being a difference maker tonight, the base running, all the way around."
Again, Napoli showed he is different than people think.
It is easy to look at Napoli and his stocky 6-foot, 220-pound build and easily dismiss him as a one-dimensional player. That seed was planted during the early days of his career with the Los Angeles Angels when manager Mike Scioscia would play light-hitting Jeff Mathis over Napoli at catcher because he felt Napoli was not athletic enough to be a good defensive backstop and was also lacking on the game-calling end.
However, Napoli put the athletic notion to rest right away when he joined the Red Sox in spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., in February after signing a one-year, $5-million contract as a free agent in the offseason. The Red Sox believed Napoli could make the transition to full-time first baseman, though many teams thought he would be best served at this point in his career by being a full-time designated hitter. Napoli answered by making just six errors in 131 games during the regular season and Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia says he should be the AL Gold Glove first baseman.
"The guy, it's unbelievable to see him go about his work every day," Lester said. "God blessed his butt in spring training to be an unbelievable first baseman for us this year."
There were those that believed he might not physically be able to withstand the rigors of a full season anymore. At first, he agreed to terms on a three-year, $39-million contract with the Red Sox but failed a team physical because Boston team orthopedists discovered avascular necrosis in both hips, the same degenerative disease that brought an early end to Bo Jackson's career. Thus, Napoli settled for $34 million less but then proved himself in the regular season by hitting .259 with 23 home runs, 92 RBIs, a .360 on-base percentage and a .482 slugging percentage in 139 games and 578 plate appearances.
"I was never concerned once I got through spring training and the doctor said I was going to be all right," Napoli said. "I took the MRIs and everything was fine. I let it go and went out and played. I don't ever think about it. It's something I never felt. I just go out there and play."
Napoli's big payday figures to come in this upcoming offseason. First, though, he is trying to win the first World Series ring of his eight-year career. He came so very close two years ago when the Texas Rangers lost in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals in the Fall Classic. That season, Napoli hit .320 with a career-high 30 homers in 113 games, adding two homers and 10 RBIs in the World Series.
After starting off the ALCS 0-for-6 with six strikeouts, Napoli is trying to everything he can to get back to the World Series. He accounted for the lone run in Game 3 as his seventh-inning home run off Justin Verlander gave the Red Sox a 1-0 victory. In the 10 at-bats since the six straight punchouts, Napoli has tallied six hits, including two doubles and two home runs.
"He's obviously picked us up in big situations throughout the season and tonight was another one of those situations, picking us up 1-0 right there off a pretty good pitcher," Lester said. "It's a big park to go yard in and he made this yard look small with that swing. It's been fun to be his teammate this year, and hopefully we can continue that in the future."
John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.