Saturday, September 24, 2011
Young, Beltre, Napoli come full circle
By Jeff Caplan
ARLINGTON, Texas -- First Adrian Beltre booted Michael Young off third base and then Mike Napoli threatened to reduce what games Young thought he'd get at first base and designated hitter. Everyone knows the offseason drama that ensued.
Those issues seem a century ago. Young, Napoli and Beltre embraced one another as teammates with a common goal at spring training and they embraced again Friday night as American League West champions. Each has produced a phenomenal season.
Young, the captain and longest-tenured Ranger, has played defense around the horn and has led the team all season at the plate with a powerful, run-producing bat.
Napoli has had a career season beyond anyone's expectation, batting an incredible .320 with a career-high 26 home runs in just 353 at-bats. Beltre has been the Gold Glove third baseman the team needed and his bat has been just as potent. On Friday night, he ignited the scoring with a two-run homer in the second inning, his ninth long ball in the last 12 games and his 29th on the season.
"These are talented players and a high-character group that plays hard every night," Young said. "I'm pretty fired up right now. Both of those guys are unbelievable. A.B. is the best defensive third baseman I've ever seen. And I can't say enough about the job Napoli did. Everyone knew he had a ton of power and he's taken his game to the next level."
Napoli thought he was going to be a Toronto Blue Jay. The only team he ever knew, the Los Angeles Angels, traded him in the winter to the Jays. Before Napoli had time to look for his passport, the Jays sent him to Texas for reliever Frankie Francisco. Napoli's versatility as a catcher and first baseman has proven invaluable. His 3.19 catchers ERA ranks best in the AL, and his bat speaks for itself.
"This means a lot," Napoli said. "They had a winning ballclub here already. Michael Young didn't want to go anywhere. Wash [Rangers manager Ron Washington] gave me a chance to play and be a part of this team. He gave me the freedom to go out there and play baseball and have fun. It's amazing."
Young is an AL MVP candidate and for good reason. Entering the final five games of the season, he is contention for the AL batting title with a .336 average, five points behind Boston first baseman and former Ranger Adrian Gonzalez. Young, fearful his time in the field and then even his at-bats would be drastically cut this season, has been an iron man. He's played in 155 of 157 games, second most in the AL. Friday was his 36th game at first base, a position he had not played until this season. He's manned the hot corner with relative ease 39 times, mostly during the critical five weeks when Beltre was out with a hamstring injury, and he's filled in at second base.
Batting fifth most of the season and then retaining the cleanup spot even when Beltre returned, Young's 104 RBIs rank as one of just nine AL batters so far to reach the century mark. This from a player the team actively shopped over the winter. He vowed he would not bring bruised feelings to the clubhouse. He instead has only bruised baseballs.
"It's obvious, Michael Young is Michael Young. He had to do many things," Washington said. "He's the most super-utility player that I've ever seen and I was a utility player. I certainly didn't have the skills he has. And he never complained. He was committed to doing one thing, getting back to this point where we have a chance to play and go to the World Series.
"Beltre, I don't think there's anyone in the game that hasn't seen him do before what he's done for us this year. He just happens to be doing it in Texas. He's done it before.
"Napoli, I always had a lot of respect for him. You've got to give [Rangers general manager] Jon Daniels a lot of credit for getting him over here, and he showed you the type of player that he is because he can't run and he's hitting .320."
There was plenty of hugging and hand shaking and, yes as Washington showed, some good-natured ribbing going on in the celebratory clubhouse. The Rangers might not enter this postseason with an ace up their sleeve as they did a year ago with Cliff Lee, but with the ever-determined Young, a healthy and red-hot Beltre and the rock-solid Napoli, they can claim to be deeper and even more potent.
It's been quite a story. Two players seemingly were brought in to push one out, and all three have combined to push the Rangers back into the postseason.