Opening Day at Fenway Park Monday was a 0-0 game in the seventh when Nava, a switch hitter batting righthanded, destroyed a Wei-Yin Chen fastball, sending it over the Monster seats. Just like that, it was 3-0. Not bad for a guy who was told the night before he would be inserted into the lineup, replacing the popular Jackie Bradley Jr. in left field.
Nava was going to make the team out of spring training because he reinvented himself. The Red Sox put a first baseman’s mitt on him and asked him to learn the position. He did well and is now considered Mike Napoli’s backup.
“I think what I learned in spring training is that it helped me that I had a good heads-up,” Nava said about playing first base. “It allowed me to get into a routine. If it had come on me real quick or suddenly, it would be more challenging. I’ve adapted to my body on a certain day. On the day I was working [with] outfielders I’d do more infield work later, less work but more intense with it.”
Nava played left field a day after playing right field in Toronto, where he homered from the left side. The Red Sox like Nava’s approach at the plate because he’s very patient and gets on base. The problem was, Nava batted just .185 in 81 righthanded at-bats last season.
So he did something about it. He practiced hitting mostly righthanded in the offseason, got some righthanded at-bats in spring training. On Monday, manager John Farrell decided that having Nava bat righthanded was better than having Bradley bat lefthanded against the lefty Chen.
And so now one wonders, does this begin a stretch of playing time for Nava? The handwriting seems to be on the wall that if Bradley continues to slump he will be returned to the minors when David Ortiz is activated from the disabled list.
Nava, a 30-year-old platoon player, isn’t about to complain about anything. In fact, he said he was happy for Bradley getting his shot in the majors.
“It didn’t change a thing,” Nava said. “I tried not to look at other people’s situation and how it would affect mine. The nature of the road I’ve taken is that I’ve been in this situation before so it didn’t bother me. Jackie is a great player who has opened eyes. If I was in his situation I’d want someone to be happy for me rather than, ‘Gee, he’s going to take playing time away from me.’ ”
Patience is everything for Nava. He used to pick up jerseys and jocks for the Santa Clara University baseball team after not making the squad as a walk-on. He transferred to a junior college, then returned to Santa Clara and became its top player. He played for the Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League, where he hit .371 and began to draw notice.
The Red Sox signed Nava in 2008 for $1.
In his first at-bat in the majors, on June 12, 2010, he belted a grand slam off Phillies starter Joe Blanton on the first pitch he saw.
After Nava put up average numbers in the minors in 2011, the Red Sox barely had him on their outfield depth chart. Only a run of injuries got Nava to major league camp in 2012, and Bobby Valentine took a liking to him and gave him playing time. Nava hit .243 with six homers and 33 RBIs last season, but he had a .352 on-base percentage.
“It’s a special experience because of the journey I’ve taken,” Nava said. “I wasn’t trying to hit a home run [Monday] it just turned out that way. Knowing the shadows were in play, I didn’t know how I would pick the ball up and knowing the game situation I was trying to pick him [Chen] up early.
“The first ball I fouled off and I was a little bit late. Unfortunately [for Chen] he left it middle and it worked out.”
Nava initially didn’t react with glee over crushing the ball, but he eventually got into it.
“Off the bat I knew I got it,” he said. “I think with this clubhouse we have great guys and everyone just wants to win. It’s contagious, so whether it’s a three-run homer or sac fly, knowing we have that bullpen is pretty exciting. I was pumped and excited because it gives us more of a cushion, but it’s something you don’t plan.”
With the path he’s taken, Nava will never feel secure on a major league roster. But breaking spring training with the Red Sox allowed him to get comfortable.
“It’s been a good journey, hopefully obviously it’s not over,” he said. “A lot of stuff has happened. It’s been a good journey in that I’ve learned from failing. To have what happened last year and get called up for something meant a lot more than the first time because I had to go through some obstacles to get back.
“First time was pretty much a success, but being away for a while was good to experience in that it made me really grateful to have another chance.
“I tried to keep that mentality this year, and whatever happens in the future, to keep that in mind.”Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.