Senior Baseball Columnist

Behind the plate and at it, Napoli up to par for Rangers


ARLINGTON, Tex. -- Now here was something new.

Nap-o-li! Nap-o-li!

Mike Napoli stepped out of the batter's box partway through his epic fourth-inning at-bat just looking to take a breath. Regroup. Reset. And as he did. ...

Nap-o-li! Nap-o-li!

"It was loud," Texas' latest folk hero said of the sellout crowd's chant. "It was real loud.

"It was awesome."

Before the Rangers finished off the Rays 8-6 Saturday night, before they sent this division series back to Tampa Bay dead-even at 1-1, there was this.

Key at-bat of the game. Napoli and Big Game James Shields locked in a nine-pitch duel with the bases loaded, none out and the Rays leading 3-1.

"Very tough at-bat versus a very tough pitcher," Rangers manager Ron Washington said.

Then he grinned.

"I don't know if anybody noticed," Washington continued, eyes twinkling. "But he choked up with two strikes. And he shortened his swing."

Yes he did. And he fouled off three consecutive pitches.

Nap-o-li! Nap-o-li!

Then he did what he's been doing all year: Made Rangers fans smile, blasting a two-run, game-tying single.

Then in the very next inning, he did what they said he didn't do enough of for five seasons with the Los Angeles Angels: He made a huge defensive play, cutting down B.J. Upton with a pea to third base as the Tampa Bay speedster got greedy and attempted to swipe the bag after a leadoff double.

Gospel truth? The Rangers laid the groundwork for winning this game -- and this summer, the AL West -- when they out-smarted those Angels last January by acquiring Napoli from Toronto.

ALDS: Rays at Rangers
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Rangers general manager Jon Daniels spent a significant amount of time last winter trying to pry Napoli from the Angels. It was no secret Napoli wasn't living up to manager Mike Scioscia's exceptionally high standards for a catcher in Anaheim. It was always something. He didn't call a good game. He didn't mesh with pitchers. His throws from behind the plate weren't crisp.

But as Daniels pestered the Angels, the word came back consistently.

"We don't want to trade him to you, because the guy could come back and haunt us," the Angels told Daniels, according to one Texas official.

But Napoli, who took more bumps and bruises to his reputation when he was with the Angels than his body ever did behind the plate, did not fit into Los Angeles' plans. And the Angels dealt him to the Blue Jays last January 21.

Four days later, Daniels and his staff blindsided the Halos by acquiring Napoli from the Blue Jays for reliever Frank Francisco and cash.

For Napoli, 29, the Angels' 17th-round pick in the 2000 draft, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. He hit .320 this summer with 30 home runs and 75 RBI. From All-Star break on, he batted .383 with 18 homers and 42 RBI.

And when he shed his designated hitter's suit and started behind the plate, Texas went 42-15.

"His offensive results speak for themselves," Texas All-Star Michael Young said. "His biggest impact, though, has been behind the plate and in the clubhouse. He calls a good game."

But, um, well, in Anaheim, they, uh, said they really didn't like him behind the plate, um, because. ...

"That's the thing about labels," Young snapped. "In this game, they're usually wrong. And they stick with you throughout your career. I don't know who invents 'em. Those people usually go by the name of 'anonymous'.

"Since he's been here, we haven't seen anything of him being a below-average catcher."

"He's been awesome for us," Washington said. "I always knew he was a grinder. I always admired him from afar. I knew he could hit the ball out of the park. But this year, he really put it together.

"He can't run, and he hit .300. Jon and his group did a great job pouncing on him in Toronto. I always thought he was a good catcher."

Napoli has choked up, shortened up, boned up and loosened up.

"I don't think I could have ended up in a better place," he said. "How the clubhouse is, playing for Wash, it's been night and day for me."

With Texas in an early Game 2 hole, Napoli was the perfect man at the plate with the bases stuffed in the fourth. Shields started him with three straight balls. From the dugout, Washington flashed the green light.

Next pitch, Napoli swung and missed at a 93 m.p.h. fastball. Then, another swing and miss at an 89 m.p.h. cutter.

The drama skyrocketed from there:

Changeup, foul ball.

Four-seam fastball, foul ball.

Changeup, foul ball.

He backed out of the box.

Nap-o-li! Nap-o-li!

"First time ever," Napoli said of those raucous chants.

From here clear back to high school, the only chanting he ever heard was the invisible chorus of critics proclaiming his incompetence behind the dish.

"Gave me chills up my spine," Ian Kinsler, Texas' All-Star second baseman, said as the crowd helped Napoli work the count.

"I've known him a long time and he has made a lot of adjustments this year as a hitter," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He's gotten shorter. He is choking up with two strikes now, and you see a different approach, more of a middle-of-the-field approach with two strikes."

Napoli stepped back into the box, his name echoing around the park. And yes, he choked up. And yes, he cracked a base hit to left.

It was the key hit of a five-run inning, and Texas wouldn't trail again -- partly because Napoli helped nip that budding Tampa Bay rally in the fifth by nailing Upton at third.

Which of the two was his favorite?

"Oh, man," he said. "I think they're kind of equal, because to tie the game definitely felt good. But throwing out Upton, for sure, that felt great."

Sounded great, too.


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