Nava hits another fork in the road

TORONTO -- Will Middlebrooks was back. Shane Victorino returned the night before. Finally, for the first time in 2014 on Friday night, the Red Sox had the team the way it had been drawn up this winter.

But that wasn't entirely true. Four hundred twenty-five miles away from Rogers Centre, playing left field in McCoy Field in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, was Daniel Nava: the guy who hit a home run last April to win the home opener, the guy who homered to win the first game after the Boston Marathon bombings, the guy who had spent his entire career surmounting ridiculous odds to become a .300 hitter in the big leagues, was back in the minors.

A three-week slump -- Nava was batting .149 after 75 plate appearances -- and the Sox pulled the plug on Everyman, the guy who once served as manager of his college team and was purchased for $1 from his independent league team, then hit a grand slam on the first pitch he'd ever seen in the big leagues.

Manager John Farrell said one of the reasons Nava was demoted was to give him a chance to regain his confidence. But how, exactly, does that work? Especially for a guy who is now 31, who has a wife and new baby and who has already had the big league life taken away from him once before -- when the Sox dropped him from the 40-man roster in 2011 -- then fought his way back.

How does walking back into a minor league ballpark you thought you'd seen for the last time make you feel better about yourself?

"I totally understand the question," Red Sox assistant GM Mike Hazen said, "and it's tough, something we take into account when we talk about those things. But I think what ends up [winning] out is the microscope you're under on the major league level, the pressure you're putting on yourself. Is that going to allow you to get out of that hole? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

"Depends on the situation. Sometimes, you're going to have 550 plate appearances of whatever happens, happens. Sometimes, you have to take the approach, 'Look, we don't have 550 plate appearances,' and you give a guy the opportunity to go down to a level he's already conquered before without the same microscope and allow him to get back to the approach that he had."

This is what Nava looks like when he's at his best.

"Patience," Hazen said, "and recognizing balls and strikes, not expanding the strike zone. Hammering balls when he's ahead in the count."

That's the player Nava was in 2013, when he batted .303 and had a .385 on-base percentage, numbers exceeded on the Sox last season by only David Ortiz. That's the Nava nominated by Farrell as the team's leadoff hitter on Opening Day. That's the Nava who had been missing in action the first three weeks this season.

"Sometimes," Hazen said, "we get forced into making decisions before we want to. Sometimes, you're able to let that rope go forever."

The decision to send down Nava was not made in a vacuum, and the Sox are well aware that 75 plate appearances might not have been a fair sample size.

"I don't think there's a direct science to it," Hazen said. "I think partly it's how the major league club is performing. That has some impact. It's partly how other guys around you are performing. That has some impact. And it's partly the flexibility we have. That may have some impact on it. In the end, we felt it was the right decision."

The Sox have a losing record. No one in the Sox outfield was hitting. Grady Sizemore is proving to be more suited to being a corner outfielder than the All-Star center fielder he once was. Rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. was needed for his defense. Nava was in a worse funk than any other hitter on the team, and his defense had suffered, too.

So, on Tuesday night, Farrell summoned Nava to his office, where general manager Ben Cherington was waiting for him, and they informed Nava he was going back to Pawtucket. Nava took two days to report, which is his right under the collective bargaining agreement.

Batting third Friday night, he struck out swinging in his first at-bat but wound up walking, singling and walking in his last three plate appearances. He also scored a run. A typical Nava night. He went 0-for-4 with a sacrifice fly Saturday, but had two hits, including a home run, on Sunday.

"He hasn't forgotten how to hit," Hazen said. "He's a really good player, a really good hitter. It was just time to hit the reset button."

Hazen said he has not yet spoken with Nava but intends to do so.

"We all plan to remind him what kind of player he is," Hazen said when asked whether it was possible Nava might despair of making it back. "That can never enter a player's mind. It shouldn't, not a guy with talent like that who has performed at this level the way he has. There will always be opportunities for a guy with Daniel Nava's talent once that talent comes through on a daily basis.

"He just has to get back his approach: calmness in the batter's box, commanding the at-bat, what he's done so well. When that comes, the hits are going to fall, the approach is going to be there, the on-base [percentage] is going to skyrocket, because he knows the strike zone as well as anyone we have."

Too soon, then, to give up on Daniel Nava, Everyman. And definitely too soon for Everyman to give up on himself.