When the Red Sox retooled after last year's 69-win debacle, they focused a fair bit of attention on the outfield, signing free agents Shane Victorino and Jonny Gomes and banking on a comeback from Jacoby Ellsbury, who missed more than half the season due to injury. Quite surprisingly, it's been a player already in the fold who has been the team's most productive outfielder and one of their most productive hitters, and on Wednesday night, he was at it again. Daniel Nava's two-run homer was all the offense the Red Sox needed as they downed the Rays at the Tropicana Dome, 2-1.
Nava connected for his ninth homer of the year in the third inning against Rays starer Chris Archer, winning a 10-pitch battle by driving a hanging slider 396 feet to rightfield:
A rather amusing sidelight was the animated reaction of Archer upon realizing he'd made a terrible mistake:
Nava's homer backed a strong spot start from Alfredo Aceves, who was recalled from Triple-A Pawtucket and sent back down after the game. Aceves worked six innings, allowing four hits and one run.
Nava is now hitting .299/.391/.449 in 253 plate appearance, and has already set a career high in homers, surpassing last year's six; his total is tied with Mike Napoli for second on the team behind David Ortiz, while his RBI total (44) third behind those two; even his walk total (30) is second behind Dustin Pedroia. Manager John Farrell is even stumping for him to make the AL All-Star team, though he'll have to do so as a write-in or a reserve, since he's not listed on the ballot.
It's all just the latest chapter in a storybook professional career that began with Nava playing for the Chico Outlaws of the independent Golden Baseball League in 2007 after not being drafted, and continued with him bashing a first-pitch grand slam in his MLB debut back in 2010. At the moment, he's substantially outhitting Gomes (.207/.336/.336), Ellsbury (.283/.355/.391) and Victorino (.282/.340/.359) while splitting time at the outfield corners. Lately, he's been covering rightfield while Victorino serves a DL stint for a hamstring strain.
Nava has gradually improved in just about every key area of hitting since his debut. His strikeout and walk rates have both improved with every year in the majors as he's grown into an exceptionally patient hitter. He's now walking in 11.9 percent of his plate appearances, and striking out in 17.8 percent; meanwhile, his 4.16 pitches per plate appearance is in a virtual tie for 15th in the league, alongside the notoriously pesky Brett Gardner and 0.01 ahead of Pedroia. Nava's isolated power has increased in every year as well; he's at .180 after last year's .147 via a .243/.352/.390 overall line. His .331 batting average on balls in play is up from .295 last year, but just two points lower than his 2010 rookie season (he spent 2011 in the minors).
If the small-sample splits are to be believed, Nava is no longer simply a product of Fenway Park, where his current numbers are a reasonable match for his overall Beantown line (.291/.406/.430). But while he hit .193/.283/.333 in 221 plate appearances on the road in 2010-2012, he's hitting .291/.372/.495 in 121 PA away from Fenway in 2013. While his performance against lefties has been passable at best (.246/.329/.377 in 73 PA, up 86 points of OPS from his previous career mark), he's become an even tougher out against righties (.320/.417/.520 in 180 PA, up 117 points from before).
Those performances are likely to regress at least somewhat, but even so, they'll continue buying him time at either corner, given that both Gomes and Victorino have struggled substantially against righties in recent years. Nava could continue to carve out a share of time if and when general manger Ben Cherington decides to trade pending free agent Ellsbury, who's unlikely to re-sign. In that event, top prospect Jackie Bradley Jr. could take over center, or Victorino could slide over, though between hamstring and lower back problems, there's some question as to whether the latter's 32-year-old body can hold up. In any event, Nava figures to further his unlikely story, remaining in the mix for playing time on the AL East-leading Sox (41-26), who are penning a pretty good tale of their own after last year's nightmare.