ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli has to suppress a laugh when someone asks about the degenerative hip condition that two years ago cast his playing future into doubt.
“My hips are the only thing that don’t hurt,’’ said Napoli, who hit his 17th home run in Boston’s 4-3, 10-inning loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s actually gotten better. My last MRI about a month ago, it looked like it had gotten a little bit better, which is weird. Not supposed to happen.’’
Since being diagnosed with avascular necrosis after the Red Sox originally signed him in the winter of 2012, Napoli had been taking osteoporosis medication, which slows the rate of bone degeneration and maximizes healthy bone production. He recently stopped taking the medication, just short of the prescribed period he was supposed to do so. (“I just don’t like taking so many pills,’’ he said.) But Napoli continues to take massive-sized calcium pills, morning and night.
“It’s all worked out,’’ he said.
Napoli, who has been symptom free from the time he was diagnosed, still undergoes an MRI every three months to chart the progress of the disease. “It’s still there,’’ he said, “but it’s not getting bigger, it’s getting smaller.’’
Napoli has been on the disabled list only once this season, missing 14 games in late May and early June with a dislocated left ring finger, but he could have missed a lot more time. He played in 29 games over five weeks with the dislocated finger, which he injured on April 15 in Chicago with a slide into second base, before shutting it down. He batted just .238 in that span, with two home runs in 126 plate appearances.
But over the course of the season, he said, he also has sustained knee and toe injuries that were slow to heal, both requiring cortisone injections. He aggravated his toe condition at least once by fouling a ball off his foot.
Then 10 days ago, during the team’s last homestand, Napoli was knocked out of the lineup by back spasms.
“The other day I woke up and I couldn’t roll out of bed,’’ he said. “Terrible spasms, on both sides. Every once in a while it tightens up. During a game, I had go up to the clubhouse and do exercises.’’
On Sunday, manager John Farrell gave Napoli a day off. The day before, he had just missed a long home run before it veered foul. Last week in Toronto, he hit one into the fifth deck of Rogers Centre, a drive measured at 451 feet by ESPN Stats and Information. Monday’s home run was more conventional, landing in the front rows of the left-field seats. It was just his third hit in his last 32 at-bats.
“I’m banged up,’’ he said. “I’ve been banged up all year, but I grind through it.’’
So much for the conventional wisdom that it wouldn’t be as hard on Napoli’s body to play first base as it would be to catch, which is what he did the first seven seasons of his big-league career.
But his overall production should come close to approaching the numbers he put up in 2013, when he hit 23 home runs and posted a slash line of .259/.360/.482/.842. With the season down to its last 25 games, Napoli’s slash line reads .251/.371/.433/.804. He has sharply reduced his strikeouts from 187 in 2013 to 125 this season, but the number of doubles he has hit has been halved, from 38 last season to 19 in 2014.
Napoli, who turns 33 on Halloween, has another year left on the two-year, $32 million extension he signed last winter. He remains a valued presence in the clubhouse, and said that after his experience with his hip, he has learned not to look ahead. “I just take it as it comes,’’ he said.
It hasn’t escaped his attention that the Sox have loaded up on right-handed hitters with the additions of Allen Craig, Yoenis Cespedes, Mookie Betts and (soon) Rusney Castillo, an imbalance that probably will have to be addressed this offseason. At the moment, David Ortiz, Daniel Nava and Brock Holt are the team’s only regulars who hit from the left side.
“I guess we just have to become a right-handed dominant team,’’ he said.
But for Napoli, remaining in the lineup is a goal that never changes, regardless of the issues he’s dealing with.
“I like to grind through it,’’ he said. “I like to be out there as much as I can. That’s how I am. Do whatever I can. Find a way.’’