Daniel Nava started his career with a bang, as everyone knows, hitting the first pitch he saw in the summer of 2010 for a grand slam. He then proceeded to do little else the rest of that season, and spent all of 2011 in Pawtucket.
So, when Nava came back to the team in 2012, it was a bit of a surprise. When he started hitting like a Major League outfielder, it was a bigger surprise. And when he started fielding his position with more than just a passing ability, I was nearly floored.
He’s embraced all parts of the game, and his impact has been felt on and off the scoresheet.
Take a quick play in the first inning of yesterday’s game with San Diego as an example. Chase Headley hit a high fly ball that was destined to hit the left-field wall somewhere between the seats and the top of the scoreboard. Nava, playing a couple of feet shy of the warning track, spun around facing the ball waiting for it to come down, as if he was expecting it to land in his glove.
Of course, the ball wound up ricochetting off the wall. Nava grabbed the ball out of the air bare-handed and fired it into second base, holding Headley to a long single and keeping Carlos Quentin at third base instead of scoring. Kyle Blanks wound up scoring Quentin on a single, and one batter the inning ended with the Padres held to a single run.
As it works out in baseball, the little things wind up mattering later. Tied 1-1 in the ninth, Jonny Gomes came up and hit a pinch-hit, walk-off home run to give Boston a 2-1 win. That will naturally be the signature highlight from that game, but that solid defensive move from Nava wound up being a part of the difference in the game.
And that’s a feat in itself. Nava, when he first came up in 2010, was as much a defensive liability as anyone I can remember in left field, which is impressive considering how much time Manny Ramirez spent out there.
I had my fun with him. Spurred on by some friends on Twitter, I created an entire series of “Curious Nava” book covers poking fun at the fact that the little guy wasn’t terribly good at baseball. But it’s time for all that to be retired.
Nava, of course, has earned a starting spot this year with his bat, hitting .285 with 10 home runs and an .812 OPS, all thanks to patience at the plate and comfort with Major League pitching, no doubt. But his marked improvement in the field is also evidence of the commitment to improve his entire game and make himself a more viable option for Boston. The fact that manager John Farrell hasn’t hesitated in playing Nava in Fenway’s tricky right field this year shows as much. He’s even played a bit of first base when Mike Napoli has needed some time off.
But his play in left field has really led to changes in the Red Sox’ plans. Gomes was originally brought in to be the everyday left fielder, but he’s found himself as a platoon player more often than not.
There’s even chatter of Nava being a write-in candidate for the All-Star team. I stopped caring too much about the All-Star Game sometime between Tim Naehring’s third snub and whenever Buster Olney decided that a meaningless exhibition was the most important day on the baseball calendar. But still, I appreciate when guys are recognized for their efforts, and Nava’s work in turning his game from middling player to solid big leaguer deserves notice.
Whether or not he makes that lineup, he’s become a fixture in Boston’s batting order. It’s not a bad development for a guy who started his career as a statistical anomaly.