Just one word, and you can completely sum-up the Texas Rangers catcher, Mike Napoli. Yeah I know that warrior, bruiser, tough guy can all work as well, but manager Ron Washington said it best...Dirtbag!
Last night in Game Five of the World Series the Rangers "dirtbag" did almost everything for his team except steal a base or strike a batter out pitching. The guy can hit, he can throw, he can catch, and he can call a great game behind the plate. You probably aren't too surprised by any of that...most Ranger fans aren't anymore.
We all know the story of him being traded twice within a few days: first from the Angels (who drafted and developed him since 2000) to the Blue Jays with Juan Rivera for Vernon Wells. Then about as quickly as they could the Rangers pounced on Napoli for RHP Frank Francisco. Rangers GM Jon Daniels really hasn't made it a secret that for years they have wanted to get a hold of Napoli via trade, and the Angels always said there is no way they'd trade him within the division. That even stayed true as the Angels manager made it clear he didn't want Napoli on his team anymore...Thanks Mike!!! (Both Mikes)
When the Rangers traded for Napoli, many were expecting a .250-.265 hitter, 20-25 HRs, and 60-70 RBI, while catching a good handful of games and giving recently signed FA catcher Yorvit Torrealba some breathers. What did the team get? Batting line of .320/.414/.631 with 30 HRs, 75 RBI, 25 doubles, 72 runs, 118 hits, and 113 games played (had one 15-day DL stint). Compare that real quick with his five seasons in Anaheim and he set career highs in all the categories I listed above. And he did all this while playing in 27 FEWER games than last year. Previous high batting line came in 2008 - .273/.374/.586, his improvements +.043/+.040/+.045. He scored 12 runs, notched 10 hits, 4 home runs, 1 double, 7 RBI, 7 walks more than any previous high, and brought his 137 strikeouts in 2010 down to 85.
From 2007-09 he played in 14 postseason games for the Angels - 6-31 (.194/.242/.419), 4 runs, 4 RBI, 2 HRs, 1 2B, 2 BB, 10 Ks. So far in the 15 games he has played in the 2011 postseason campaign - 16-51 (.314/.383/.510), 11 runs, 14 RBI, 3 HRs, 1 2B, 7 BB, 11 Ks.
Is it safe to say this could be the perfect example of a player who just needed a change of scenery? Because we aren't talking about an aged, late-30s player looking to revitalize his career, or a player trying to come back from multiple major injuries. Mike Napoli is only 29 years old, turns 30 on Halloween. The Rangers have him under team control through the 2012 season, and I don't see a scenario in which an extension isn't reached to keep him as the catcher, first base, DH bearded beast.
Last night was just one example of the things that Napoli has done for the Rangers in 2011, regular season and now more importantly the postseason. "If you don't love the stage or can't handle the pressure, then maybe baseball isn't for you." - Mike Napoli, last night after his game-winning 2 RBI double.
On Sept. 30th, Oct. 11th, and Oct. 20th, Napoli was held hitless in games, he has at least one-hit in the other 12 postseason contests and four multi-hit games. He has 14 RBI in the postseason, and six times he has had a multi-RBI game, including 3 straight and 4 of the 5 World Series contest. In fact in the World Series, he may only have four hits, but what timing on the hits: Game 1 (2-run, opposite field HR off Chris Carpenter), Game 3 (2-run single), Game 4 (3-run HR off Mitchell Boggs to break open a 1-0 game), and Game 5 (2-run, bases loaded, opposite field double to break an 8th inning tie). Overall: .308/.438/.846, 2 HRs, 1 2B, 2 runs, 9 RBI, 3 BB, and 2 Ks. Last night he became only the second-player in World Series history to have four multi-RBI games in a single Fall Classic, the other was Mickey Mantle in 1960...not bad company. He tied a record of 9 RBI in his first 5 career WS games played, tying Tony Fernandez and Mosies Alou. Finally, the last time a player notched a go-ahead hit in the 8th inning or later in a World Series Game 5,6,or 7 was Troy Glaus (ANA) in Game 6 of the 2002 World Series.
Stats aside....huge postseason numbers aside...arguably the best "8-hole" hitter aside...these are not what make Napoli a "dirtbag." Ask him, or any of his teammates, the man prides himself on his defense and ability to call a game. These are two factors that a catcher must have, that Napoli before this season had gotten the reputation that he lacked both. Before the 2011 season, Napoli was being viewed as a power-hitting backup catcher, who could play first base in a pinch, but was soon destined for DH duties. I struggle with that, because I can't see this team, being where they are, one game away from becoming World Champions without Napoli on this team. The man has seriously been that valuable.
On Sunday night, he prepared, worked, and caught Derek Holland's masterpiece. Holland gets the bulk of the credit because he was the pitcher, but ask anyone who knows baseball, ask any catcher, or even ask Holland and they will talk about the job that his counterpart did behind the plate. There is a reason the catcher-pitcher combo are announced twice before a game and why they are called "the battery," because we have all learned that you NEED good pitching to win series, and are now seeing (past 2 seasons) how important having just as valuable a catcher is as well.
Now, you can call me partial, I was a catcher from age 3 to 18, maybe even by age two thanks to the love of baseball from my grandfathers (Jack and Joseph), my parents (Dale and Cathy), and my tough-nosed uncles (Greg, Marty, Joey, and Danny). I believe catcher's are the "brains" of a baseball team, and can prove this by pointing to how hard they work before games to prepare, not to mention how many managers in baseball are former catchers. It was Bengie Molina that was a staple for the Rangers 2010 success, Matt Treanor who kept CJ Wilson in check last year, Molina who broke through to Neftali Feliz in 2010 and again in 2011 (not as a player), it's Yorvit Torrealba who has been a clubhouse leader, on the field and off it, and it's Mike Napoli was has been instrumental in the progression of the youthful, Ranger pitchers.
Everyone loves the long ball or being the hero with, in this case, a 2-run double in the 8th inning of Game 5 of the World Series. But catchers are just a slight different, catchers get just as much excitement, take just as much pride in calling a masterpiece, blocking strike three to a tough hitter, or gunning down runners. That has been one of the major, unmentioned appeals of this year's Fall Classic, Mike Napoli has been a HUGE producer for the Rangers at the plate and behind it. But don't forget for one second his opposite number, Yadier Molina has been an assassin behind the plate, one of the very few clutch hitters for the Redbirds so far, and is arguably the best catcher in baseball...today.
Napoli absolutely loved being the hero that stroked the game-winning hit. But I guarantee you that he enjoyed catching Derek Holland on Sunday night just as much, and loved working around the Cards best hitter, Albert Pujols, and getting those that followed him to hold their offense quiet. Though it's not fun, catchers love the play at the plate, doing the quick math in their heads and realizing where the ball will land and how close it's going to be. Hard to tell, but when Cruz gunned down Miguel Cabrera in the ALCS, I'll bet that Napoli at some point in those five seconds had a little smirk.
Just as much of a smirk as he must of had when he let go of the ball and realized that they gunned down the go-ahead runner, Allen Craig at second base in the seventh.
But finally, I will go out enough on a limb as to say that in his personal heart, Mike Napoli's favorite play last night didn't come in the bottom of the 8th, but instead the top of the 9th. With the tying run at the plate in the form of Pujols, the count 3-2, Feliz-Napoli-Kinsler orchestrated what catcher's and many baseball purest call their favorite play...the strike'em out/thrown'em out double play. The same players had done this once before in late August in a play that ended the game against the Angels. It is a truly exciting play, and maybe my favorite. I love the play, as do many, because of how quickly momentum changes. Last night, in the span of three seconds the Cards went from their best hitter at the plate as the tying run with no outs TO two outs, bases empty, and tying run on deck.
That is an absolutely, incredible momentum shifter! The animal-like yell that Napoli gave after second base umpire Jerry Layne punched out Craig (for the second time in three innings) easily says it all. When Napoli hit his 2-run double in the 8th, I jumped out of my couch, waving the runners home, and screaming as loudly as a silent person can (4-month-old son Samuel was very much asleep at that hour). But when Napoli gunned down Craig after Pujols swung and missed at strike three, I leaped out of the couch again, pumping and holding flexed both fists, screaming silently, pointing Mr. Craig towards his dugout, and then finishing with back-to-back right-handed air punches. Needless to say after the game, I slept "Napoli Ever After."
That was the play of the game for me, even though the next batter Matt Holliday would draw a walk, that double play let the air out of the Cardinals sail and notched up the Rangers confidence meter to 11.
Texas hasn't won anything yet, and still MUST win one of the potential two games remaining in St. Louis to earn the organization's first World Series title, but with a "dirtbag" like Napoli behind the plate, my confidence is soaring.