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April 09. 2013 12:04PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: A feel-good story gets better

BOSTON -- IT'S DAYS like Monday that make you realize it really is the baseball gods that govern the game. Only they, after all, could've seen to it that after a cloudy, cold and windy weekend, the sky was clear and the air comfortable as Fenway Park opened for the year under pristine conditions.

Or that in a season the Red Sox begin charged with trying to win back their fan base by being more likable, it's a guy like Daniel Nava who plays hero in the home opener.

Ownership can try to generate good will by offering half-priced hot dogs (those lines were long) or discounted beer (those lines were longer), but ultimately it will be the performance and the players that determines how successful the Sox are in their efforts to restore the faith. It will be winning, of course. But it will also be evidence of humility. Of passion. Of commitment. Of resiliency. Of a genuine appreciation for the opportunity to play at this level, on this team, in this town.

And so it could've only have been the baseball gods who made certain that the personification of that personality - Nava - had a bat in his hands with two on in the seventh inning of a scoreless game.

To that point, Baltimore's Wei-Yin Chen had been every bit as good as Boston's Clay Buchholz, and despite his lefty's climbing pitch count, Orioles manager Buck Showalter felt good about the matchup, because leaving Chen in would force Nava to hit right-handed. And Nava began the day batting just .191 from that side of the plate over the course of his big-league career.

But remember: Nava wasn't even supposed to have a big-league career. His collegiate career began as the equipment manager at Santa Clara, before he transferred to junior college. His pro career began by getting cut in the independent leagues. And after he forced his way into and through the affiliated system, his major-league career began with him launching a grand slam on the first pitch he saw.

Even then, it looked as though that might be Nava's one shining moment. His flaws were exposed by the end of his 2010 rookie year. He spent all of 2011 in the minors. He was designated for assignment by the Sox, and returned to Pawtucket only after going unclaimed on waivers. He returned to Boston in 2012 but missed significant time with a wrist injury.

Yet thanks in no small part to his humility, passion, commitment and resiliency, here he was, the Red Sox' starting left fielder in their home opener, which wasn't an honor he took for granted - "Opening Day is a special experience to begin with, and for me it's special because of my journey" - but was one he earned.

Jackie Bradley Jr. had started at that spot in each of the season's first six games, and Nava said he was genuinely happy for his new teammate. But opponents had begun to adjust more quickly than the rookie, while Nava had spent the spring doing the work necessary to be a viable option in this situation. He'd gone 6-for-17 against lefties in the Grapefruit League by letting the ball travel and by applying the principles of his approach from the left side. He started to trust himself - and, on Monday, Manager John Farrell trusted him, too.

Nava's first time up, he worked a five-pitch walk. The second, he singled after fouling a pair of 1-2 pitches. Then came the game's biggest moment. With Dustin Pedroia (single) on third, and Mike Napoli (double) on second, Nava knew he wanted to be aggressive because he was leery of the shadows creeping over the top of the stadium and what they might mean later in the count.

After taking a ball, he swung a bit late and fouled off a 92-mph fastball. But Chen left his third pitch elevated on the inner half, and Nava squared his bat on that one, cleaning it out with a clout that easily cleared the Green Monster before crashing down beyond Lansdowne Street and giving the Sox all the offense they'd need for a 3-1 victory.

Just like that - and just like old times - Fenway was in a frenzy, from the dugout on out.

"It was a special moment," said Nava, who has hit .500 with a .588 on-base percentage during the Sox' 5-2 start. "The environment of Red Sox Nation and everything is something you just can't fake. To get that win, and have everything go the way it did, was something special."

It's only been a week, of course, but there's a sense that something special is brewing with these Sox. The start is their best in seven years, their defense has yet to commit an error, and their top two starting pitchers have yielded three runs through 26 innings.

As they attempt to reclaim their adoration, it's easy to root for a team that does things the right way on the field - and even easier to root for a team of guys like Nava. Even in his big moment, he spoke about how simply making the team out of spring training for the first time was "something that meant a lot," though he's hardly dwelling on his own situation. In a clubhouse of guys who want to win, he said, he simply wants to contribute. And after the trip he's taken, he's not taking anything for granted.

"To have what happened last year," Nava said, "it meant a lot more than the first time because I had to go through some obstacles to get back."

Don't put it past those baseball gods to see that six months from now his entire team is saying the very same thing.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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