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Mike Napoli the toast of Texas
To this point, it’s not the World Series anybody expected, what with the pitchers' duels and Ron Washington out-managing Tony La Russa. Still, as seen from the inside, the strangest development has to be our nightly pilgrimage to the locker of a burly man with a collection of miniature rubber duckies.
That would be Mike Napoli, hero of Monday night's Game 5, who lifted Texas to within one win of its first title with a tiebreaking two-run double in the eighth inning of a 4-2 victory. If the Rangers win in St. Louis on Wednesday night, he almost certainly would go down as the MVP of the 107th Fall Classic.
He looks every bit the catcher — the fireplug physique, the bags of ice wrapped around his quads, camo T-shirt, a sleeve of tats on his arm, and, as he wound down after Sunday night's Game 4, a bottle of beer in his hand. And yes, those rubber duckies. He would be the first World Series hero with a row of miniature rubber duckies arranged across the top shelf of his locker.
“Oh,” he said the other night. “That’s just a thing with me, my brother and his friend.”
He offered no further explanation. Perhaps that’s a star’s prerogative. But stardom has come so fast for Napoli, or, as the fans here now like to chant: “NA-PO-LI!”
A month ago, he was an interesting story, a guy whose acquisition went a long way toward explaining the Rangers’ return to the postseason and the demise of his former employer, the Angels who insist Anaheim is LA. But now, the guy who wasn’t quite good enough to satisfy a former catcher named Mike Scioscia, finds himself on the verge of baseball immortality. NA-PO-LI! Indeed.
Someone asked him if the chant was “too distracting?”
“The first time it caught me off guard a little bit,” he conceded.
But that was a long time ago, or rather, it seems like a long time. The chant began in the division series when Napoli got a hit off Tampa Bay’s James Shields.
Now I’m happy to report that, somehow, he’s made the adjustment. “I love hearing these people chant my name,” Napoli said, not long after hitting the game-winning, eighth-inning double. “It pumps me up.”
Napoli was asked if he had entered that mythically blessed “zone,” in which athletes occasionally find themselves.
“I guess,” he said. “I mean, it looks that way.”
In the seventh, with two out and two on, Napoli smashed a ball to right center. He thought it had a chance to leave the park, and if it had been hit anywhere else but right-center, the deepest part of the outfield, it would have. Instead, it was a 400-foot out, after which Cardinals’ ace, Chris Carpenter, was apparently seen barking at the opposing catcher.
“I don’t really know him,” Napoli said. “It’s unfortunate if he was yelling at me … but … I’m not going to pursue anything.”
As it happened, there was no need, as Napoli hit his game-winning double in the very next inning. It’s worth mentioning, however, that he had a big assist from none other than baseball’s resident genius. For reasons that still defy explanation, La Russa had left-hander Marc Rzepczynski pitch to Napoli.
Let’s see. There were three relievers who figured in La Russa’s explanation: Lance Lynn, who was supposedly too worn out to pitch, Rzepczynski, and Jason Motte, the closer. La Russa called the bullpen. “They heard ‘Rzepczynski’ and they didn’t hear ‘Motte,’” he said. “And when I called back I said ‘Motte,’ they heard ‘Lynn.’ ” So Lynn comes in, but only to walk Nelson Cruz intentionally. Then La Russa, a master of delay tactics, calls on Rzepczynski and leaves him in to face Napoli with the bases loaded.
All of this, La Russa said, because of the Texas crowd noise that made it so difficult to be understood on the bullpen phone. “I give the fans credit,” he said, a remark that left the press corps in a state of incredulousness.
Napoli recognized his good fortune as soon as he came to the plate. “I’m glad it happened that way,” he said. “I’d rather face (Rzepczynski) than Motte.”
The score was tied at 2. The bases were loaded. “We needed a sac fly,” said Michael Young, the 10-year veteran who initially requested a trade after the Rangers obtained Napoli. “He got us two.”
Actually, Napoli got them more than two. Twice — in the seventh and ninth innings — he threw out Allen Craig trying to steal second. And with each throw, he effectively took the bat out of Albert Pujols' hands. La Russa blamed the first attempt on — what else — botched communication. On the second, he said, “I trusted Albert could put the ball in play.”
Pujols, who hit three homers the other night, the prospective tying run, was supposed to put the ball in play?
I don’t get it. I just know that Napoli caught Craig again.
“I want to show I’m a complete player,” Napoli said.
Actually, he’s showing more than that. If this keeps up, rubber duckies will be the hottest thing in Texas.