BALTIMORE — There were no restrictions on Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli over the winter, no doctors telling him what he was allowed to do. He ran and lifted weights as often as his trainer suggested he should.
That freedom was missing last year after Napoli was diagnosed with a degenerative hip condition initially thought to be career threatening. Instead of preparing for the season like he normally would have, Napoli underwent tests and saw specialists.
It wasn’t until well into the season that Napoli was allowed to play unfettered. Medication and treatment were effective and regular exams showed the condition had stabilized.
Now, after a normal offseason, Napoli is stronger and more confident.
“My body feels good,” Napoli said. “I was able to work out legs a lot more. It was just totally different.”
That was noticeable Wednesday night when Napoli hit a long home run and drove in four runs to lift the Red Sox to a 6-2 victory against the Baltimore Orioles before a crowd of 25,708 at Camden Yards.
The top four hitters in the order — Daniel Nava, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, and Napoli — were 8 for 17 with two walks, six runs, and six RBIs.
Pedroia was 4 for 5 and scored two runs.
John Lackey started his season with a strong performance, allowing two runs on three hits over six innings and striking out six. Edward Mujica, Junichi Tazawa, and the ever-reliable Koji Uehara handled the Orioles from there.
Napoli had the two biggest swings of the night. He belted a two-run home run to center field in the fifth inning and followed that with a two-run single in the seventh.
It’s only nine plate appearances, but manager John Farrell sees a difference in Napoli.
“There’s been a lot more freedom in his mental approach in the game. We’re seeing early dividends,” Farrell said. “Last year there was a little wondering how his body would respond to everyday play.”
Considering that Napoli hit .259 with 23 home runs and 92 RBIs last season, the idea that he could improve is heartening to the Sox.
“That’s a very good hitter,” Lackey said. “He can carry a team for a long time. I’ve seen it.”
The Sox got started in the third inning. Pedroia singled with one out and scored when Ortiz hammered a fastball from Ubaldo Jimenez deep over the wall in right field for his first home run.
It was the 432d career homer for Ortiz, who had been tied with Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr. for 45th place all time.
“I was tied with the idol? That’s crazy,” Ortiz said. “Talking about the man that never missed a game out there. It’s always an honor to myself to be mentioned with that caliber of a player.”
The Red Sox went ahead, 4-2, in the fifth. Nava was hit by a pitch before Napoli homered with two outs. Jimenez’s 0-and-2 pitch was a fastball over the plate and Napoli extended his arms and hammered it.
It was good news for the Red Sox when Orioles signed Jimenez to a four-year, $50 million deal in February. He is now 1-3 with a 10.27 ERA in five career starts against the Sox.
The Sox extended the lead to 6-2 against righthander Ryan Webb in the seventh inning.
Nava singled with one out. Pedroia followed with a ball hit slowly down the line at third. He beat the throw from Ryan Flaherty and the ball got away for an error, putting runners at second at third.
Baltimore manager Buck Showalter intentionally walked Ortiz to get to the righthanded-hitting Napoli. Webb’s second pitch, a sinker, was knocked into left field for a two-run single.
Napoli was 6 for 13 with two home runs last season following an intentional walk to Ortiz. He’s become accustomed to the challenge.
“I had a taste of it last year. I used to be really amped up for it and I was able to stay calm and just get the job done,” Napoli said.
Said Pedroia: “We’ll take our chances. We love when Nap’s up with guys on.”
Pedroia is 6 for 10 in two games. He also made an outstanding defensive play in the second inning, going behind second base to stop a ball hit by J.J. Hardy and throwing to first from one knee.
Lackey retired 11 straight after giving up a bloop single by Nick Markakis to start the bottom of the first inning.
“Threw a bunch of heaters. Lot of country hardball the first few innings,” the righthander said.
Lackey walked Chris Davis on four pitches with two outs in the fourth inning, pitching carefully to the Baltimore slugger. It appeared like sound strategy when Lackey got ahead of Nelson Cruz, 0 and 2.
But the third pitch was a high fastball on the outside corner and Cruz lined it out to right field for his second homer of the series.
Lackey recovered and retired the final seven batters he faced.
Mujica made his Red Sox debut in the seventh inning by striking out Cruz looking with a changeup that dived to the bottom of the strike zone.
Uehara’s appearance was a little complicated. Davis reached on an error by Napoli before Hardy had an infield single with two outs. But Flaherty grounded to first.
The Sox send Felix Doubront to the mound Thursday night with a chance to win the series. The home opener is Friday afternoon against Milwaukee.