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Napoli back in Anaheim, and back in contention

First baseman playing key role in Red Sox resurgence in AL East @LyleMSpencer

ANAHEIM -- Mike Napoli is back home at Angel Stadium, his Major League birthplace. He's here this weekend in the company of John Lackey, his former Angels battery mate, and the American League East leaders from Boston.

Funny how good teams seem to follow Napoli around. He's looking for his sixth postseason trip in eight seasons.

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"This is where it all started for me," Napoli said before Friday's series opener against the Angels. "I was drafted in 2000 and made my big league debut in 2006. I have a lot of great memories. I was fortunate to learn from some great teammates who taught me the way the game's played, how you go about your business."

The Angels made it to the postseason in three of Napoli's five seasons as their catcher and part-time first baseman, twice losing to the Red Sox in the AL Division Series before sweeping the Sox in 2009 and losing to the Yankees in six games in the AL Championship Series.

Moving to Texas in 2011, Napoli helped power the Rangers to the World Series, falling one out short of a championship in St. Louis. Napoli -- who hit .350 with two homers and 10 RBIs in the seven games -- almost certainly would have been the World Series Most Valuable Player if his team had found that elusive final Game 6 out.

Signing with the Red Sox as a free agent over the winter, Napoli moved to full-time first baseman and has nine homers with 54 RBIs, second on the club to David Ortiz's 59. He hasn't homered since his June 1 grand slam, his second of the year, in New York.

Lackey, Napoli's old buddy, has turned back the clock to his days as the Angels' ace, going 6-5 with a 2.81 ERA in 14 starts. Eleven years removed from winning Game 7 of the 2002 World Series as a rookie in manager Mike Scioscia's rotation, Lackey on Sunday will face Jered Weaver, his protégé and successor as staff ace.

"We've got a lot of players here who do things the right way," Lackey said. "It's good being back with Nap. He's obviously a great player and a winner. He gets after it."

Napoli has really gotten after his old team since departing, going first to Toronto in a deal for Vernon Wells after the 2010 season, before the Blue Jays flipped him to Texas.

In 36 games against the Angels entering the weekend series, Napoli is hitting .368 and slugging .752. He has unloaded 12 homers while driving in 25 runs. In 2011, he went deep seven times against his former team, including four in the season's final series at Angel Stadium.

"Just a coincidence," Napoli said, grinning, when asked about torching his old team.

What Napoli has found in Boston, in the wake of its season of torment, is sunshine and flowers with new manager John Farrell and a cast of fun-loving characters.

"It's been awesome here from Day 1," Napoli said. "Going into a new clubhouse, I figured I'd feel things out. But from Day 1, it's like we've all been together for years. We have so much fun here. We tell everyone no one's safe."

Several of Napoli's most memorable games came in his new home park. His two-homer, three-hit effort lifted the Angels to their lone victory in the 2008 ALDS, and in 2009 he celebrated the three-game sweep of the Sox in a silent Fenway Park.

These Sox have the old yard rocking again.

"Along with being on a team that's so much fun," Napoli said, "you get that atmosphere in Boston. I like it when you're expected to win every night, to get a hit. Every night you're supposed to bring it."

The Red Sox and Angels couldn't be much hotter as they collide, each having won eight of the previous nine games. The Red Sox took the field on Friday with five-game lead over the Orioles in the formidable AL East, while the Angels are trying to lift themselves out of a not-so-grand canyon to challenge the A's and Rangers in the West.

If the Sox manage to make October meaningful, Napoli will be delighted to do his share of the heavy lifting. He's a .272 postseason hitter in 32 games with five homers and 19 RBIs.

"I think I just enjoy that time of year, the importance of the games," Napoli said. "It's that win-or-go-home kind of thing. You have to win. For me, that's a fun time."

Napoli said he's thrilled to be playing first base in an infield featuring Most Valuable Player candidate Dustin Pedroia at second, Stephen Drew at shortstop and .411-hitting Cuban native Jose Iglesias at third, having replaced Will Middlebrooks.

Napoli sees some similarities between his Angels teams that won three consecutive division titles and these Red Sox.

"There's Ortiz and Vlad [Guerrero]," Napoli said. "We had some great players; this team has some great players. On the field, I've never been on a team that was as connected as this. The attention to detail here is amazing.

"In the infield, everyone's always talking with each other on positioning, where we need to be. It all starts with Pedroia. He's so into everything. Everyone here has one goal -- winning that night."

The scene changes, from Southern California to Texas to New England, but Napoli and winning go together.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for

Boston Red Sox, John Lackey, Mike Napoli