Napoli picks up Lester; Lackey next in line?

NEW YORK -- Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli, whose unvarnished opinion of Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka ("What an idiot") would never have been uttered had he known a dugout microphone would pick it up, does not play favorites.

Still, despite the fact his game-winning home run in the ninth inning Saturday night -- the one that came at the expense of the heedless Tanaka -- made a happy man out of Sox pitcher Jon Lester, Sox starters have noticed a definite trend.

If form holds, folks who tune in to Sunday night's nationally televised game between the Sox and Yankees will see for themselves that when John Lackey is pitching, Napoli is likely to do some damage at the plate.

"Yeah, no kidding," Lester said. "Somebody noticed that the other day. It's crazy. He's got to take care of his boy."

It started in Lackey's first start of the season, in Baltimore. Napoli had two hits, including a home run, and knocked in four runs. Next start, a three-hit game, and before the end of May, there would be two more three-hit games.

But it is in June that Napoli's pro-Lackey campaign has really taken off. He had three hits, including a game-tying home run, with Lackey on the hill June 8 in Detroit. His next start, against the Indians, there were two hits and three RBIs.

On June 18, after Lackey pitched nine scoreless innings in Fenway Park and departed the game with a no-decision against the Twins, Napoli hit a walk-off home run in the 10th.

And this past Tuesday in Seattle, in a game in which Lackey was routed, Napoli still did his part, with two hits, one another home run.

Need one more piece of compelling evidence? Go back to this past October and Game 3 of the ALCS, a thrilling 1-0 duel won by Lackey over Justin Verlander of the Tigers. The only run of the game came on a gargantuan home run by Napoli.

"The numbers are pretty good, huh?" Napoli asked Saturday night.

How about spectacular? In the 14 Lackey starts in which Napoli has batted this season, he is hitting .431 (22-for-51) with 4 home runs and 12 RBIs.

He doesn't like him that much, does he?

"He's my boy," Napoli said. "We grew up together."

Lackey, who had headed back to the team's hotel early to rest up for his start, wasn't around Saturday night to dish on his longtime friend, who was drafted by the Angels in 2000, one year after Lackey was picked.

Lackey made it to the majors four years ahead of Napoli but was there when Napoli marked his debut in 2006 with a home run off Verlander in his first big league at-bat.

"I remember that, for sure," Lackey said after Napoli's postseason blast off Verlander. "He got called up and hit one off Verlander on a curveball. And I said, 'We need that dude, keep him around here.'"

Lackey left the Angels first, signing with the Red Sox after the 2009 season. Napoli left a year later for Texas, before the two were reunited with the Sox last season. Neither one has shied from a good time since, many of them shared together.

Napoli is too easygoing to disparage a player, friend or foe. That's what made his gleeful comment about Tanaka to teammates as he returned to the dugout, caught on Fox TV, so startling.

Napoli was referring to the fact that Tanaka, who had devoured him with split-fingered fastballs in two earlier at-bats -- striking him out each time -- would throw him a fastball with two strikes and two outs in the ninth. What made it an even more egregious mistake is that the batter on-deck was Stephen Drew, who is mired in a horrific slump.

"He had me right where he wanted me," Napoli said.

Tanaka acknowledged afterward that he had twice shaken off Yankees catcher Brian McCann, until he got the sign for a fastball, and threw a 96 mph heater over the fat part of the plate. Napoli didn't miss it and drove it over the short right-field porch into the first row.

It was his sixth home run at Yankee Stadium since joining the Red Sox, the most by any visitor since the start of the 2013 season.

"Luckily, we're in Yankee Stadium and not anywhere else, and that ball goes out," said Lester, who was looking at a no-decision after allowing one unearned run in eighth innings.

Instead, he got to watch Koji Uehara polish off the Yankees and set up Sunday night's rubber match, with Lackey on the hill and Napoli at the ready.