When he steps into the batter’s box, Mike Napoli never plans on stringing out his at-bats so long.
But the bases were empty in the sixth inning, the game was tied, there were no outs and instead of being a cleanup hitter, Napoli needed to be a table-setter.
“Yeah, I’d like to drive the ball,” Napoli said. “But no outs, nobody on, I’m trying to get on base, get something started.”
Napoli had already done everything in his power to get Tampa Bay Rays starter Erik Bedard out of the game.
He squeezed 13 pitches out of the 35-year-old lefty in two at-bats, and even though Bedard threw five one-run innings, the Red Sox watched him run up 20-pitch inning after 20-pitch inning, and waited him out.
The fruits of all the labor showed up as soon as Bedard left the mound.
After piling up 104 pitches, Bedard was done and Napoli was at the plate to lead off the sixth inning staring at 29-year-old righthander Brandon Gomes.
Napoli wrung a nine-pitch walk out of Gomes that set off a five-run inning that all but sealed the Red Sox’ 7-4 win.
“I really don’t go up there and say I’m going to try to see eight pitches,” Napoli said. “It just kind of happens that way. I try to swing at strikes. If they’re going to nibble at the corners, then I’m going take and try to get in a hitter’s count and get on base anyway.”
It only took four for the next hitter, Jonny Gomes, to take his base on a walk. Xander Bogaerts put a scare into Gomes when he ripped a 3-and-1 fastball deep but foul to left field before flying to left. But his seven-pitch at-bat ended Gomes’s night.
Seeing Gomes miss the strike zone with 11 of his 20 pitches forced manager Joe Maddon to dip into the bullpen again, this time for Juan Carlos Oviedo, a 32-year-old righthander who had been out of the majors since 2011.
A.J. Pierzynski ripped an RBI single up the middle, Will Middlebrooks followed by taking Oviedo for a ride off the Monster for a run-scoring double, and Jackie Bradley applied the finishing touches with a two-run double off the wall in center.
The outburst all but decided the opener of the three-game series.
“It’s like we’re all working together,” Napoli said. “Get the starter out early and try to get to that bullpen and wear them down.”
Bradley likes the approach.
“Pitchers get tired of throwing a lot of balls to the same batter,” he said. “It’s like a frustration thing. When you’re working at-bats, it makes it tougher on the defense and on the pitcher.’’
Both the Rays and the Sox came into the game still trying to find themselves nearly a month into the season. But with Middlebrooks and Shane Victorino (4 for 4, two RBIs) returning to the lineup last week, the Sox seem closer to figuring it out.
“We knew coming in, we had a pretty good read and a feel for what Bedard would offer tonight and he kept us in check with the one run allowed just through the first five innings,” Sox manager John Farrell said.
“But because we were able to work a number of deep counts, take our base on balls when we needed, any time we can get in that bullpen — it might not have an affect on tonight but hopefully over the course of a three-game series we see some of those benefits. I think the biggest thing, over the last eight, 10 games, we’re putting together more consistent at-bats.”
John Lackey added to his string of quality starts to begin the season, giving up just two runs over eight innings. As he’s done all season, he pumped the strike zone with 85 fastballs (60 for strikes).
But Red Sox’ silent weapon was their patience at the plate. Eight of the nine Red Sox that came to the plate had an at-bat that stretched at least six pitches. Everyone in the lineup notched at least one quality at-bat.
Napoli, who extended his career-high on-base streak to 22 games by going 1 for 3 with two walks, led the charge. He saw a team-high 33 pitches in five plate appearances.
“When we’re all working together like that and grinding out at-bats and getting on base and getting hits with guys in scoring position, that’s who we are,” Napoli said. “It’s a little taste of what we like to do, but we’ve got to stay consistent with it and keep it going.”Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.