NEW YORK — Masahiro Tanaka threw two splitters that Mike Napoli swung through. The new ace of the Yankees had struck him out with the same pitch his two previous times up and now, in the ninth inning, the Red Sox first baseman was set up again.
“He had me where he wanted me,” Napoli said.
But this time Tanaka went with his fastball, a 96-mile-per-hour heater that was a little up in the strike zone.
In a game waiting for somebody to win it, Napoli pounced. His line drive to right field cleared the wall and gave the Red Sox and a deserving Jon Lester a 2-1 victory before a sellout crowd of 48,433 at Yankee Stadium.
“My hands reacted and I was able to drive it,” Napoli said. “It’s always nice doing it here.”
Lester allowed one unearned run over eight innings to beat Tanaka in what was a compelling game. Koji Uehara came in for the ninth and retired the Yankees in order for his 17th save.
On the day the Red Sox called up star prospect Mookie Betts and didn’t play him, they beat the Yankees for only the third time in eight games this season. They are 3-6 on a road trip that ends tonight.
The Red Sox are 37-44 at the midway point of the season, seven games out of first place but breathing a little easier thanks to the 10th home run of the season by Napoli, who has 24 RBIs in 25 games against the Yankees since he joined the Red Sox.
“A well-pitched ballgame on both sides. But a timely hit,” Sox manger John Farrell said.
Tanaka (11-3) could well be the American League Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Award winner this season. But he was taught a lesson by Napoli.
Catcher Brian McCann twice called for the splitter and Tanaka shook him off. There were two outs and the hitter on deck was Stephen Drew. Drew had fanned twice and popped up, leaving him 7 of 55 this season. But Tanaka wanted to challenge Napoli.
“I was pretty surprised,” Napoli said. “I had two strikes and I was trying to see something up. In my mind I was saying ‘hang a splitter’ but I got something up in the zone I could handle.”
Napoli went the other way with the ball. He raised his right fist in the air as he hit first base before clapping his hands together. Fox television cameras caught Napoli yelling “What an idiot!” as his teammates embraced him in the dugout. A more subdued Napoli said later that he meant no offense to Tanaka.
“I really thought he was going to throw the splitter,” he said. “It’s a nasty pitch. It looks like a strike and then the bottom falls out of it.”
Tanaka has allowed four runs over 15⅓ innings against the Sox this season, all on solo home runs. Drew, naturally, struck out to end the inning. But the Red Sox had the lead.
Lester (9-7) was watching from the dugout after giving the Red Sox 118 pitches. He scattered five hits, walked two, and struck out six to drop his earned run average to 2.92.
“Obviously pretty excited,” Lester said. “[Tanaka] pitched really well to Nap all night, had him guessing. Nap put a good swing on that ball right there and luckily we’re in Yankee Stadium and not anywhere else and that ball goes out.”
Lester worked out of a jam in the eighth. After he walked Brett Gardner, Lester fell behind Derek Jeter, 3 and 1. He threw a sinker over the plate that Jeter hit up the middle.
Dustin Pedroia backhanded the ball as he sprawled in the dirt and used his glove to flip the ball to Drew and start a double play.
“Pedey was able to get his glove on it and flip it to Stephen. That’s a hell of a play by those guys to bail me out,” Lester said. “I don’t think you can give in there.”
Tanaka retired seven of the first eight batters he faced before catcher David Ross drove a fastball over the wall in left field for his fourth home run.
It was only the second homer for Ross in 96 at-bats against righthanded pitchers over the last two seasons. The other was against Texas ace Yu Darvish last season. So if you’re a well-paid Japanese sensation, the backup catcher of the Red Sox is coming for you.
“Just trying to get something up over the plate,” Ross said. “I saw the fastball good. It felt like it was middle.’’
The Yankees tied the game in the bottom of the third without getting the ball out of the infield. Brian Roberts reached on an error by Drew. Lester then hit Yangervis Solarte in the right foot with a cutter. The Yankees played for one run as Gardner bunted the runners over. Jeter then grounded to shortstop to score Roberts.
Lester went into the sixth without having allowed a hit. He gave up three in that inning but not a run.Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.