Nava shines in return to lineup

BOSTON -- The timing of Daniel Nava's recent hand injury was not great. For the Red Sox, it was the latest in a cavalcade of physical issues for their outfielders, again leaving them lean. For Nava, it interrupted another surge that had firmly planted him atop the batting order. Prior to the injury, he was hitting .345 (10-for-29) with five doubles in June.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Nava's return to the starting lineup and the leadoff spot Wednesday night happened to coincide with the team's best offensive showing of the season in a 15-5 rout of the Miami Marlins.

Nava, who started for the first time since June 9, had four hits, matching a career high and lifting his average as a leadoff hitter to .344 (11-for-32). The sample is still pretty small, but Nava has shown such discipline and confidence since coming up in May that none of it feels temporary.

"He's contributed since day one," fellow outfielder Cody Ross said of Nava. "I was telling somebody the other day, I still haven't seen him give up an at-bat. That's one of the main reasons why we're playing well. He's done an outstanding job and he deserves a lot of credit."

Nava takes the alternate route. He sees no reason to get too high, even after a four-hit game, or too low, like when his hand became sore just as he was hitting his stride. It comes with the territory for a guy who has become accustomed to shattering perceived notions that he is just a bit player.

Bit players are rarely discussed in the sarcastic tone manager Bobby Valentine used after the win. When asked about Nava's performance, Valentine said, "Yeah, ho-hum." Even the skipper, who did not have Nava in spring training camp this year due to the lack of an invite, has come to expect this kind of stuff.

Valentine continued: "He's a very good player and he's playing very well. He hit four different types of pitches tonight, too. He's in a nice little groove, and I'm glad he's healthy and back."

Nava's play, including very strong defense and some giddy-up on the bases, will lead to some interesting debates when Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford return. He will not supplant either of them, but he will have to get consideration for the other spot, despite the presence of Ross and others. It will be difficult to turn your back on the guy who is challenging David Ortiz for the team lead in OPS.

If and when it comes to a position battle, Nava will not change his routine. If he did, he would be going against everything that got him to this point.

"I try to keep the same mentality I had when I was in the minors. Just step in the box, simplify the game, make it as relaxed as possible," he said. "Up here I've been trying to do the same thing. ... The lineup we have is good. Just be yourself. I'm glad that I'm able to be myself, be free with myself and help the team get some wins."

Entering Wednesday night, Nava ranked among the team leaders in pitches per plate appearance, a plus for a leadoff hitter. That was something that Mike Aviles, who batted leadoff most nights until Nava came up, could not offer. It's simply not part of his free-swinging game.

Now spending much of his time batting eighth or ninth, Aviles is able to recognize what the Sox have atop the order.

"He's a good hitter," Aviles said. "You look at what he's done so far. He comes up and he's very patient. If the ball is not where he wants, he doesn't swing. When you have an eye like that, it benefits you. I wish I had an eye like that because I can't take that many pitches."

Aviles was asked about Nava's ability to rise from the minor league camp this spring to the top of the major league lineup a few months later.

"It shows you what he has on the inside. He's got a lot of drive, a lot of determination," he said. "He's got the same thing that a lot of people that get overlooked has. Just trying to show everybody and prove everyone wrong. I think that's awesome. He comes out, plays hard every time and does well."

So much so that this once-forgotten figure is now expected to contribute.