Napoli gets tested right out of chute in debut

First baseman has no issues in field, picks up RBI single in first at-bat

Napoli gets tested right out of chute in debut

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The way Mike Napoli's Grapefruit League season started on Friday night was almost comical.

For all the attention paid to Napoli's move to first base, not to mention his hip condition, it was only fitting that the very first pitch of the game presented him with a test.

Pirates leadoff man Darren Ford opened the game with a push bunt over to Napoli, who fielded it cleanly and raced to the bag, getting the sliding Ford by a split second.

Dustin Pedroia looked over at Napoli from his position at second base and the teammates shared a laugh.

"Pedey was looking at me and I was like, 'Right out of the chute.' It was funny," said Napoli. "I'm glad I was able to make the play."

Considering Napoli played all of four innings in the Red Sox's 5-2 victory on Friday, he was involved in a lot of action, both in the field and on the bases.

And much to the relief of Red Sox fans, who know full well that his original contract agreement of three years at $39 million ended up being reduced to one year and $5 million, he passed every test with ease.

"I was excited," Napoli said. "I was really excited to get out there. I did everything I could possibly do. I feel great, and we can move on from here."

Up next for Napoli will be a 1:35 p.m. ET game on Sunday against the Yankees. It's hard to imagine Napoli will be as involved in that one as he was in his debut.

Napoli, batting in the cleanup spot, got his first at-bat in the bottom of the first and promptly ripped a single off the foot of Pirates starter Jeff Locke and into left field.

"Yeah, it's nice. I feel good," Napoli said. "My BP has been great working in the cage. My hands are working freely right now and I'm going to keep working."

Once Napoli got on base, there was plenty of running to do. Stephen Drew ripped a double into the right-field corner and Napoli roared to third. Before having a chance to catch his breath, he hustled home on a wild pitch.

"I've been working hard to get on the field and get myself in shape and do whatever I have to do to get out there," said Napoli. "We've done it and I'm out on the field and we're going to progress to get my legs under me and play as many innings as possible."

Once Napoli got back in the field again in the second, the ball continued to find him. Pedro Alvarez hit a grounder to Napoli, and he looked like a natural, feeding pitcher Jon Lester for the out. Two batters later, Napoli roamed in front of the photo pit on the first-base side and caught a foul pop off the bat of Brandon Inge.

Just when it seemed there wasn't another play that could test Napoli, Lester fielded a slow roller by Jose Tabata and fired a one-hopper to first to end the top of the third. It went in the sweet spot of Napoli's mitt.

"I'm just glad he caught it," said Lester. "Nap did a good job. We got the out, so that's the main thing."

Those who watch the Red Sox work out on a daily basis at Spring Training know how much work Napoli has done on defense.

How many ground balls has infield instructor Brian Butterfield hit to him?

"A thousand? I don't know," Napoli said. "It's been a lot, but you know, I told Butter, 'I want to work every day and make myself the best I can possibly be out there.'"

It isn't as if Napoli has never played first base. He has started 118 games there in his career, but there's a huge difference between the catcher who plays first base to rest his legs or the first baseman who plays the position all the time.

This is the first time Napoli has been able to work so extensively on his defense at first.

"No, because I was always catching," Napoli said. "When I was playing first that day, I would go out and take ground balls. I didn't really get to work on footwork and all that kind of stuff a lot. I basically went out there and tried to make the routine play and knock it down and get it to the pitcher."

At least on Friday night, Napoli looked like someone who could turn into a pretty reliable first baseman.

"When you consider how many plays Mike had over at first base, we couldn't draw it up probably any better in the four innings of work that he had there," said manager John Farrell. "A number of three to one feeds to the pitcher, a couple of picks in the dirt. He did a very good job. First pitch of the game that he sees, here's a push bunt his way and he's thrown right into the mix. But he handled everything flawlessly."

It was a good first step.

"I felt good. I felt comfortable over there," Napoli said. "I should, after all the work we've put in on the backfields and just working on it. Everything felt good, my legs felt good and I was happy to be in there."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brownie Points, and follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.