It is often considered a tired cliché bandied about in major league clubhouses by players looking for something to say. But when Daniel Nava said he had to take his journey to the major leagues “day by day,” you have to believe him.
Nava, who was to make his major league debut for the Red Sox against the Philadelphia Phillies on Saturday, did not take a routine route to the big club. But with that simple philosophy, and production everywhere he went, the 27-year-old finally got his shot.
"Nothing was handed to me," Nava said. "I knew I had to do my job on the field before that was a possibility."
And he has.
After getting cut from his college team at Santa Clara University, Nava opted to enroll at a junior college, only to play so well that Santa Clara took him back for his senior year, during which he hit .395 in 54 games.
Still, the switch-hitting Nava was not drafted out of college, leaving him with the option of playing independent ball at Chico of the Golden League. After another stellar season that saw him hit .371 with 12 homers, Nava re-emerged on the radars of major league clubs, earning the honor of Baseball America’s top independent league prospect.
The Red Sox certainly took notice, and Nava has had a meteoric rise through their system.
"In independent ball and in college and even when I first got picked up by the Sox, it wasn’t even a thought in my mind," Nava said about someday making the majors. "I was just trying to get to the next thing.
"In college, [the goal] was just to get drafted. When I didn’t get drafted it was just to get picked up by a team, and once I got picked up by an independent team, it was to get picked up by an affiliated team. I think that helped a lot. It helped me look at that next goal that was right there. I didn’t look too far in advance."
That mindset allowed Nava to hit .341 at low Single-A Lancaster in 2008, and .339 at high Single-A Salem to start the next year. Then, in 32 games at Double-A Portland to end the 2009 campaign, he batted .364 with four home runs and an exceptional 25-to-12 walk-to-strikeout ratio.
Finally, with injuries all over the place in the big club’s outfield, the Sox had a need for an extra outfielder but no longer wanted 23-year-old prospect Josh Reddick to ride the pine and lose valuable playing time. So, Reddick went down, Nava came up from Triple-A Pawtucket, and the self-described 70-pound high school kid who could barely lift a 32-inch bat just 10 years ago (his words, not ours), was playing the position once held by Hall of Famers Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice.
"It’s obviously a dream come true. It’s been a fun run, for sure," he said.
Of course, once all the pregame jitters subside, Nava knows he has a job to do. He said he’s a guy that has always done the little things — backing up bases in case of an overthrow, hustling down the line, making pitchers work. Those are the things Nava said he can control, and what eventually got him noticed, in addition to the lofty batting averages.
Red Sox manager Terry Francona said he never gets tired of seeing a player like Nava get all geeked up for a major league debut. The skipper also knows that needs to wear off at some point.
"We recognize the first day in the big leagues is tremendous," Francona said. "But there’s more than calling mom and dad saying, ‘I got an at bat.’ Once these guys let the veterans know they care about winning, the quicker they are included in that clubhouse, and our guys have always done a real good job of that."
Francona was told by Boston’s player development staff that Nava is, in fact, a guy who can help the Sox win. He may not knock the cover off the ball, or tear up the bases, Francona said, but he’s been “a solid baseball player” since coming into the organization.
It is that reputation that Nava hopes to gain during his time with the Sox, however long that might last.
"I hope that someone who’s never seen me play will be like, 'Oh, he plays the game the right way,'" Nava said.