Oft-overlooked Nava seizes spotlight

NEW YORK -- There are nine Boston Red Sox players listed on the 2013 All-Star ballot, one for every position, including designated hitter.

Missing is the name of the guy who has a higher OPS than Dustin Pedroia, more RBIs than David Ortiz, and is two home runs behind Ortiz and Mike Napoli for the team lead.

But don't blame the folks who chose the All-Star candidates. The Red Sox freely admit that they, too, didn't know what they had in switch-hitting outfielder Daniel Nava, who at age 30 has added another remarkable wrinkle to a storyline that from the outset has been over the top in improbability.

"We wouldn't have taken him off the roster if we did," said Sox vice president/assistant GM Mike Hazen. "We got kind of lucky, didn't we?"

And this part may be the best of all for the kid who used to spend nights in a coin-operated laundry washing the uniforms of his college team, was signed out of an independent league in California, hit a grand slam on the first pitch he saw in the big leagues, then was dropped off the big league roster less than a year later.

"You don't even think twice," Sox manager John Farrell said, "about writing his name in the lineup now.

"We've talked many times about his path, his pedigree, or lack thereof. Yet all he does is go out and perform and produce."

Nava may never believe he has it made. That would be counterintuitive for a guy who was too small in high school, unrecruited by colleges, undrafted by a major league team, deemed expendable by the Red Sox. But his performance this season -- the most recent highlight a four-hit game against the Yankees on Saturday night as a fill-in leadoff man, including a three-run home run -- has lifted him to a place he has never occupied before. He has become someone the Red Sox depend on.

"He's a completely different player," said Farrell, who was first exposed to Nava as the Sox pitching coach in 2010, the year that Nava announced his arrival with a grand slam off Philadelphia's Joe Blanton in Fenway Park.

"For one, he's a better defender. I think more than anything, over time he has gained some confidence that he belongs here and is a very good major league hitter. Not just because he sees pitches and works the count. He's picked out certain areas where he can drive the ball. He's become a much better right-handed hitter than he was in the past, and to his credit he's worked his tail off to be the player he is today."

And that's just two years after the Sox designated him for assignment, meaning he was there for the taking by any team willing to pay the waiver price.

"You never know how a kid is going to react," said Sox first-base coach and outfield instructor Arnie Beyeler, who managed Nava in Pawtucket. "You see what a guy is made of when the rug's been pulled out from under him. That heart, that drive is the hardest thing to scout and judge. You really see what guys are made of when those things happen.

"He's the underdog guy. He's always had to earn everything he's got. That's all he knows how to do, and he just continues to do that."

Hazen was the club's director of player development from the time Nava was first signed on Jan 17, 2008, a month before his 25th birthday, the Sox acting on the recommendation of pro scouting director Jared Porter and vice president/player personnel Allard Baird. It didn't cost the Sox much: $1. That was his purchase price from the Golden League. If a player makes a major league organization, the Golden League receives a total of $1,500.

Nava started with the Sox in the Class A California League, a league in which 25 is an age you don't want to see if you expect one day to make your living in the majors. It's a league for hot-shot high school draft picks and freshly minted college stars with fat signing bonuses in their pockets.

"I give Chad Epperson a lot of credit," said Hazen, invoking the name of the team's catching coordinator who was managing in Class A Lancaster at the time. "When Daniel first signed, we had Jason Place, we had Mickey Hall, guys who were high picks and given a lot of money."

Hazen then recounted what became almost a nightly conversation between the two.

"Hey Mike, this guy can hit, I'm telling you."

"Eppy, c'mon man."

"I need to put him in the lineup every day. This guy can hit."

"Who you going to sit?"

"I don't care, this guy has to hit. I'll play him at DH, the outfield, somewhere, but this guy can hit."

Finally, the day came when Hazen said: "OK, you win, go ahead." What would have happened had he not conceded?

"He could have died on the vine with us, had we never played him," Hazen said. "I give Eppy a lot of credit. He pounded me every day on the phone."

Nava won the Cal League batting title, hitting .341, and the independent Golden League got its money. The next year, 2009, he hit .339 in Class A Salem, then .364 in Double-A Portland. He began 2010 in Triple-A Pawtucket and was hitting there, too, when he was called up on June 12. The Sox were short of outfielders. Jeremy Hermida had fractured ribs, another call-up, Josh Reddick, wasn't hitting and was sent down, and the Sox tapped Nava. Nationally televised game, Nava batted for the first time in the second inning. The first pitch he saw, from Philadelphia's Joe Blanton, he hit into the Sox bullpen. Terry Francona, the Sox manager at the time, said he felt like crying.

"You're in shock, really," Nava's mother, Becky, said at the time. "Just in awe. You think maybe you're in a dream."

Sox outfielder Mike Carp was with the Mariners at the time. "I happened to catch that grand slam in his first at-bat. I saw it on TV live, in Seattle," Carp said Saturday.

"He's been as consistent a player as we could hope for. Hopefully, he'll keep it up all year because he's done some amazing things for us."

But first, the fairy-tale start began to hurtle toward a disappointing ending. Nava didn't hit another home run in 160 more at-bats that season. He was a below-average outfielder, and he sported a mediocre .242 batting average. He didn't make the big league team out of camp the next season, struggled badly in Pawtucket, and on May 20, less than a year after his dramatic home run, he was deemed expendable by the Sox, who made him DFA.

"It's not that we ever questioned he'd hit again, we always thought he was going to hit again -- he'd hit from the day he was born," Hazen said.

"But the way he was playing defense, plus struggling offensively, there was no value to us at the major league level. At that point in time we were maneuvering around a very good ballclub. We were trying to put every piece in place to enhance our major league club. We had no roster spots we could sit on."

Every other big league team passed on Nava.

"I think we got lucky because of his background," Hazen said. "I think maybe other teams didn't buy into it, because of his pedigree and where he came from, just what makes the story so special to begin with."

As expected, Nava began to hit again, almost immediately after he was outrighted to Pawtucket. He reached base in 34 straight games, and hit .397 during a 17-game home hitting streak.

What no one foresaw, however, were the strides Nava made in the outfield. He worked with outfield instructors Tom Goodwin and David Howard. He worked on strengthening his arm. Mostly, he just worked. "He was the one who did it," Beyeler said. "He was the one worked, who realized there's more to the game than just hitting and took pride in his defense.

"You can't teach that. The guys who go out and do it, they're the ones who become the great stories."

The Sox took notice.

"What's really interesting to me," Hazen said, "is that usually when guys are not hitting and go down, they think the only way back to the big leagues is to hit. Which is a large part true, no doubt about it.

"But the fact that while Dan was struggling, he did so much to improve his defense, when he came back up it was eye-opening, how much better of a player all the way around he was. I think that's the big difference. He's always been able to hit. He went through an extended funk, but he never lost his ability."

Nava began last year back in Triple-A, but not for long. In May, the Sox restored him to the roster, and with Carl Crawford unable to play because of injuries, he played more games in left field than anyone else. But while he hit well from the left side (.269 with a .383 OBP), he struggled from the right side, batting .185 with a .280 OBP.

He came to camp this spring unsure of a roster spot, the Sox having brought several other players to camp to compete with him. Nava even worked out at first base in an attempt to enhance his value to the club.

Farrell is candid when asked if he ever imagined Nava taking on the importance he has.

"I don't want to slight him," Farrell said, "but I've got to be honest with you, no.

"[But] he's come on so much defensively, and as spring training started to unfold, we had some injury situations we were dealing with, and he kept coming along, he kept coming along."

On Opening Day, Nava sat. Rookie Jackie Bradley Jr., who had a terrific spring, drew the start in left field. That first week, Nava started a couple of games at DH, one at first base. But when the Sox returned home, with Bradley struggling, Farrell put Nava in left field for the first time this season against Orioles left-hander Wei-Yin Chen. Nava responded with a three-run home run that broke a scoreless tie and accounted for all of the team's runs in a 3-1 win.

"I think one of the defining moments for him as this season has unfolded was the three-run home run he hit right-handed against Chen," Farrell said. "All of a sudden, it makes you open your eyes and say, 'Maybe we don't have to look at him as just a one-sided guy."

Nava has reminded an everyday player ever since, starting in 47 games, including 12 starts against left-handers. He has a slash line of .297/.397/.483/.880. He has 37 RBIs, 8 home runs and 8 doubles. He has not gone more than two consecutive starts this season without a hit. Saturday night's four hits, which matched a career high, came the night after he'd struck out three times while batting leadoff in place of Jacoby Ellsbury.

"Things are a lot better, that's for sure," he said after Saturday night's 11-1 win over the Yankees. "Getting a win is huge. Getting a chance to win the series tomorrow. It was one of those nights you had a good feel."

It's a feeling the Red Sox share about him. Still the underdog?

"I think he's been in that position since the day he signed," Hazen said. "He doesn't get the strikes that other guys get. He doesn't. That's not fair, but that's the way the world works.

"But the fact that he did what he did, that's a tip of the cap to him. He's going to be in this league a long time, the way he plays now."