10/02/11 1:51 AM ET
Performer of the Game: Rangers' Napoli
Backstop ignites offense in fourth, then douses Rays' rally in fifth
By Jane Lee / MLB.com
Five runs were scored in the frame. Nine men were sent to the plate. Two batters were hit, and just as many wild pitches were thrown. In short, Texas erased Tampa Bay's three-run lead in favor of a 5-3 edge.
Amid the fray comes one big hit, usually. And to no one's surprise -- at least not in the Rangers' clubhouse -- Mike Napoli was the one responsible with a two-run single, ultimately fueling Texas to an 8-6 victory that knotted the American League Division Series at one game apiece.
"He's not underrated in here, that's for sure," Michael Young said. "He might have snuck up on some people outside of this clubhouse, but not here. He's done a great job."
Particularly in clutch situations. It was just three days ago that Napoli provided his teammates with all the scoring they needed courtesy of two home runs against his former Angels team in a 3-1 win that sealed home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
That allowed Rangers fans to not only experience Saturday's heroics first-hand, but lend the 29-year-old Napoli a memory he won't soon forget.
With the bases loaded and a run in already, Napoli stepped to the plate against Tampa Bay hurler James Shields, quickly working a 3-0 count. Shields came back with two strikes. Then Napoli fouled off three pitches -- all to chants of "Nap-o-li!" -- before lining a two-run single to left to tie the score.
His heroic ways were familiar. The chants, not so much.
"It was probably the first time ever," Napoli said of the chants of his name. "It was pretty loud, too. And when I heard it, I was like, 'You guys can't do this to me now in this situation.' But I put a good at-bat together and helped tie the game up."
"It has been incredible what this guy has been able to do, this porterhouse over here," Ian Kinsler said with Napoli sitting a foot away. "You know, they're screaming 'Na-po-li' there in that big at-bat he had with the bases loaded, and the whole stadium is chanting his last name. And I get the chills, and I don't know how he is up there staying focused. But he had a heck of an at-bat. He kept battling and battling, maybe seeing eight or nine pitches.
"And, you know, it's just something that we have come to expect ... but it is nice to have him at the plate in those big situations, and tonight he came through."
Napoli wasn't even supposed to be a regular this season. He admitted on Saturday night that he wondered, "Where would I get my at-bats?" at the beginning of the year. Napoli was expected to come off the bench, offering utility options at catcher, first base and designated hitter. He was going to offer support to the bigger names in the lineup, not the other way around.
But after landing on the disabled list for three weeks with a strained left oblique muscle and his average stuck at a dismal .221, Napoli returned on July 4 and went 88-for-233 (.377) in his final 67 games to finish the season at .320. He also concluded his first regular season in a Rangers uniform with a career-high 30 home runs and 75 RBIs.
Offense aside, Napoli may be prouder of his defensive turnaround. Behind the plate, he posted an AL-best 3.16 catcher ERA in 61 games. Within those contests, 57 were starts; the Rangers put up a 42-15 record in those contests. Napoli also threw out 10 of 31 attempted base-stealers for a 32.3 percentage, good for third best in the league.
Perhaps, then, B.J. Upton should have thought twice about swiping third base -- or rather, trying to -- in the top of the fifth inning. The Rays' center fielder led off the frame with a double just minutes after Texas had taken the lead. With one out, Ben Zobrist represented the tying run at the plate.
The speedy Upton, who stole 36 bases in the regular season, broke for third on the first pitch. But Napoli's throw to third baseman Adrian Beltre beat him to the bag.
"I take pride in defense," Napoli said. "I kind of got labeled as not such a good catcher, and I always thought that I was a good catcher, so to show it means a lot."
"That was a big momentum shift right there, to cut off the runner at third," Young said. "Obviously, [Upton] knows how to steal bases really well, and Nap made a perfect throw. You want to take advantage of momentum swings in postseason games, and we did that tonight.
"Nap made it happen. It seems he has all year."