The Red Sox dropped two winnable games in a row to the Orioles, spoiling what had the potential to be a tempo-setting first home series. If there is a silver lining to Boston’s subpar offensive output in Thursday’s 3-2 loss, though, it’s the increased comfort that Mike Napoli appears to have at the plate.
Napoli entered Thursday’s contest hitting just .211 (6-for-34) with only one multi-hit game and on the heels of a 0-for-3 night on Wednesday. The Red Sox’ cleanup hitter helped supply half of Boston’s offense while going 2-for-4 in Thursday’s losing effort, however, and his nine-pitch battle against Orioles starter Chris Tillman serves as proof that the slugger is making strides at the dish.
“Yeah it is,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said when asked if this is the best he’s seen Napoli so far this season. “Against good stuff against Tillman tonight, you can see his timing getting a little bit more consistent. They attacked him with fastballs away, up and down away, and some breaking balls and he’s starting to foul pitches off that he three or four days ago wasn’t quite getting to. He’s starting to settle in pretty good.”
The nine-pitch at-bat came in the third inning, and Napoli’s RBI single gave the Red Sox their only lead of the night. Dustin Pedroia had tied the game with an RBI single into right field the at-bat before, and Napoli came up with two on and two outs.
Napoli fell behind in the count 0-2 after fouling off the first two pitches he saw, but he would eventually work the count full as Tillman dished out a combination of fastballs and cutters. After Napoli took two straight pitches to make the count 3-2, Tillman went to the slider to try and put Napoli away, but the Red Sox first baseman fouled it away to see another pitch. On pitch No. 9, Tillman went back to the fastball. It was middle in, and Napoli ripped the offering into left field. The ball nearly hung up long enough for left fielder Nate McLouth to make a play, but it dropped just under his glove, allowing Shane Victorino to come around with Boston’s second run of the ballgame.
The Red Sox wouldn’t score again, as Will Middlebrooks grounded out to end the third inning and the offense sputtered from there. Napoli’s lengthy at-bat is the type of AB that wears pitchers down, though, and more of those going forward should benefit the Red Sox in the long run.
The only other major Boston rally came in the sixth, and it was started by Napoli, who singled into center to lead off the inning. Daniel Nava added a hit of his own two batters later, but Brian Matsusz came on to get the Orioles out of trouble.
Overall, Napoli saw 18 pitches while raising his season average to .231. It meant little in the grand scheme of the game, and it’ll mean even less if he can’t start consistently stringing together at-bats like that third-inning AB. In a two-game span that saw some crushing moments for the Red Sox, though, it’s at least something positive to take away.