For a guy who hit .320 with 30 homers this season, Mike Napoli wasn’t too offended with his position in the Texas Rangers’ batting order. Actually, he wasn’t offended at all.
He just took a long look at the lineup card for Sunday night’s Game 4 of the World Series and assumed his manager, Ron Washington, had a reason for making him one of the most spectacularly overqualified No. 8 hitters in this or any other postseason.
“I kind of figured they didn’t want lefty-lefty,” he said, “what with the way Tony uses his bullpen.”
Tony would be Tony La Russa, of course, the master strategist who manages the Cardinals. Napoli — acquired from the Angels by way of Toronto for Frank Francisco, in what turned out to be the most lopsided deal of the year — would hit between the lefty David Murphy and the lefty Mitch Moreland.
“I don’t mind,” he said after striking the biggest blow in the Rangers’ 4-0 win, a three-run homer that backed pitcher Derek Holland’s gem. “I’m going to have the same approach as if I was hitting sixth.”
In other words, he puts in his time in the cage, every day. He hits off a tee. He hits balls flipped to him by a coach, one-handed with a short bat. Then he takes his regular cuts.
“I’ve been swinging well,” he said. “I work hard. I feel comfortable with two strikes.”
Yes, it’s all come together for him this season, in what Rays manager Joe Maddon recently dubbed “The Year of the Napoli.” Still, it’s worth noting that Saturday night had been one to forget. Game 3 of the 107th World Series saw Napoli commit a throwing error that cost Texas two runs and get tagged out at the plate on a poor slide.
“It was behind me as soon as I left the field,” Napoli said. “I really didn’t think about it anymore.”
Easy to say, but not to do. Then, in the sixth inning of an improbable pitchers’ duel, Napoli came to the plate with men on first and second. La Russa had just gone to his bullpen, calling on right-hander Mitchell Boggs. It is unknown whether La Russa knew Napoli had a hit in one at-bat against Boggs, a double down the line in an interleague game in 2010. Still, the manager had to figure Boggs’ sinker would be enough.
“My sinker, I feel like I can get a ground ball from anybody,” Boggs said. “But I just left it up.”
First pitch, Napoli knew from the feel of the barrel to the ball: “I hit it pretty good.”
He hit it 392 feet into the left-field seats for a 4-0 lead. That makes him the first catcher since Mike Piazza in 2000 to hit a couple of home runs in a World Series. And it made the Rangers very happy, knowing there will be a lot more left of this Series. Napoli came out of the dugout for a wave of the cap.
“On this stage?” he asked. “You have people chanting your name for a curtain call? It doesn’t get better than that.”
What happened Sunday night in Arlington was all but a must-win for Texas. The long relievers had been worked hard the night before. The Rangers had their No. 4 starter, Holland, the rotation’s weak link this October. But as it happened, that three-run homer was more than Holland would need.
The young, emotional pitcher was brilliant, self-possessed and able to take a shutout into the ninth. But to hear Washington’s explanation, the catcher had a lot to do with it.
“He has a real good feel for receiving and a real good feel for what his pitchers are capable of doing, and he did a great job tonight of making sure Holland established his pitches,” Washington said. “That’s the key, establishing his pitches — all of them. He used everything: curveball, change-up, fastball, up, down, out. He did everything, and that’s what Nap has brought to us.”
Washington paused for effect. “And he also brought a three-run homer.”
For the record, Napoli knew Holland would be good from the first inning. He was throwing his fastball for strikes and getting ahead in the count. That’s what enabled him to throw the other pitches.
“I’m pretty sure I helped,” Napoli said. “I know some of the things I have to do, try to get him back into the strike zone and slow him down.”
But really, it was all about Holland throwing strike one.
The three-run homer didn’t hurt, either.
By the time Napoli came to the plate again in the eighth, 51,539 fans were chanting his name. It was Oct. 23, in the year of the Napoli.