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Thursday, September 12, 2013

Patience with Mike Napoli pays off for Farrell and Red Sox

Mike Napoli is locked in.

Mike Napoli shared last week's American League Player of the Week honors with his teammate Will Middlebrooks, but it would have been fitting if their boss got a portion of the award as well.

After all, it was Red Sox manager John Farrell who kept penciling Napoli into the lineup nearly every game despite a three-month power drought and a dismal August in which the first baseman hit .208 and seemed to strike out every other at-bat. Even when Boston's lead in the AL East race disappeared, Napoli got the call again and again.

Farrell's patience paid off, as Napoli has emerged from his long dry spell to hit .391 (20-for-51) with 6 doubles, 6 homers and 18 RBI over his last 15 games (including a two-run double Wednesday night). 
Napoli has plenty to smile about lately.

Not surprisingly, the hot streak has sparked the Sox to a sizzling 13-2 stretch, and Boston has built its East lead up to 9.5 games over second-place Tampa Bay.

Farrell was likely aware of Napoli's past history. A streak hitter, he traditionally does better late in the season -- including a .429 average and 1.361 OPS in September/October 2011 and 7 homers in 16 games last September. Still, it takes a cool head and supreme confidence to stick with a guy who's flailing, especially as a first-year manager trying to turn around a last-place club.

The approach Farrell took with Napoli is similar to that displayed in 2004 by another rookie Boston skipper, Terry Francona, who played Kevin Millar all through a first-half slump. Like Napoli, Millar got hot down the stretch, batting .331 with a .987 OPS starting July 4 as the Sox nearly caught the Yankees in the East and reached the playoffs as the Wild Card entry.
Millar's hot stretch helped deliver a title.

What happened next is well-documented. Millar had some clutch hits during the postseason and the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years.

Boston has no need for a Wild Card this year, having all but clinched the East with 15 games to go in one of the biggest single-season turnarounds in franchise history. Last year's Red Sox team finished in last place at 69-93; this year's club is currently 89-58.

Can Boston cap off its magical revival with a title run in October? That remains to be seen, but if Napoli keeps up his sizzling pace, he could play a major role in determining the outcome. 
Can Nap keep it up into October? We shall see.

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