Wednesday night’s Game 6 will not be the first time Mike Napoli takes the field in a potential World Series clincher. He was in this exact spot two seasons ago, against this very same Cardinals team.
In fact, Napoli, then a catcher for the Texas Rangers, was behind the plate when Rangers closer Neftali Feliz — just one strike away from the title — surrendered a two-run, game-tying triple to David Freese that forced extra innings.
The Cardinals went on to take Game 6 in the 11th in one of the greatest World Series games ever played, and another St. Louis victory the following night sent Napoli and his Rangers teammates home empty-handed.
“I think about it all the time,” Napoli told the Boston Herald last week. “I’ll be home, sitting on the couch watching baseball, and you always play the what-ifs. What if I called a slider there [to Freese]? Or what if [outfielder Nelson Cruz] caught that ball? You go through that all the time. It hurts to this day. It was so close. That’s the closest you could possibly be, and I was right there — twice. For me, it took a while to get over. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.”
Now, that opportunity has come again. The Red Sox can knock out the Cardinals and clinch a World Series title at home for the first time in 95 years with a win on Wednesday (or Thursday), and for the first time since Game 2, Napoli will be a part of the starting lineup.
National League rules forced the slugger to the bench for three games at Busch Stadium to make room for David Ortiz, who is hitting at an otherworldly .733 clip so far in the Series. The lineup adjustment limited Napoli to just one at bat in Games 3 through 5 combined, and he said Tuesday that he relishes the opportunity to return to full-time status now that the series has shifted back to home soil.
“Yeah, I’m excited,” Napoli said, via MLB.com. “It was kind of rough being in the dugout and I wanted to be in there, but it was [Ortiz] at first base. I can’t really complain about that. He’s one of the best hitters in the game. I was ready for the late innings.”
The opportunity to clinch at home was not a luxury Napoli enjoyed in 2011. The two deciding games in that series were both played before a raucous crowd in St. Louis. The fact that this year’s pivotal contests come at Fenway, where the Red Sox are 5-2 this postseason, and also where manager John Farrell can field his ideal lineup without worrying about any NL shenanigans, is something Napoli says should not be discounted.
“We feel comfortable playing there, it’s our home field,” he said. “We’ll have our crowd behind us. It should be fun. We’re not going to change anything. We’re going to play our game and try to win a ballgame.”