Commentary

Dream season keeps getting better

At this pace, Mike Napoli's heroics no longer come as much of a surprise

Updated: October 2, 2011, 3:44 AM ET
By Jean-Jacques Taylor | ESPNDallas.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- With the bases loaded and none out in the fourth inning, more than 50,000 Texas Rangers fans began chanting, "Na-po-li! Na-po-li! Na-po-li!"

It was the first time Mike Napoli ever heard a crowd chant his name. At this rate, it won't be the last.

Napoli delivered the biggest hit of the Rangers' season, a two-run single that tied the score and propelled Texas to a must-have 8-6 win Saturday over the Tampa Bay Rays.

[+] EnlargeMike Napoli
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezMike Napoli delivered a two-run single to tie things up for the Rangers and threw out B.J. Upton in the fifth to prevent a Rays rally.

He later singled and scored in the sixth inning on Ian Kinsler's two-run double. Oh, and he threw out B.J. Upton trying to steal third in fifth inning, stopping a potential Tampa rally before it really got started.

We probably shouldn't be surprised by anything else Napoli does this season.

It's been that kind of storybook season for Napoli, acquired in the offseason for reliever Frank Francisco after the Angels traded him Toronto. Anyone who's seen Napoli play with regularity this season can't understand why a smart organization would give up on such a player.

Then again, if the Angels had known Napoli was going to have a career year they never would've traded him.

The Angels should take solace in knowing Napoli would've never played this well with the Angels because he could never meet Mike Scioscia's expectations for players at that position, the same one he manned for 13 major league seasons.

Ever.

So Napoli pressed, and we all know what happens when that occurs. In Texas, he's thrived because the Rangers have no interest in clones -- they appreciate individuality.

They don't care what approach players use to accomplish a job done as long as it gets done. They want their players to be themselves and arrive at the ballpark with a clear mind each day.

You can't do that if you're looking over your shoulder.

General manager Jon Daniels figured Napoli's competitiveness would go over well in the Rangers' clubhouse, and he knew he'd fit in with manager Ron Washington's aggressive base-running style because the Angels play the same way.

Add Napoli's ability to play first base and DH, and Daniels thought Napoli would give Washington supreme lineup versatility.

Still, there's nothing on Napoli's resume that suggests he could, or would, have this kind of season. Talk to Napoli long enough and he'll credit Washington for creating an atmosphere where he could thrive.

Maybe this is all poppycock.

Perhaps we should simply credit the collection of multi-colored, inch-high plastic ducks -- Napoli's brother started sending them to him as a joke in spring training -- that sit neatly on a shelf in his locker.

Whatever the reason, there's no disputing Napoli is playing the best baseball of his career. And there's no doubt he's having a career year.

He's established career highs this season in batting average (.320), OPS (1.046), runs (60), hits (108), doubles (25), homers (26) and RBIs (75).

No hit was bigger than the 3-2 changeup he lashed into left field, allowing the Rangers to tie the score at 3-3 against Tampa ace James Shields, who had limited the Rangers to one run in the previous 20 innings he'd pitched against them.

When Napoli reached a full count, the crowd rose to its feet in anticipation.

"It was crazy to hear the crowd in that situation," said Napoli, holding a Blue Moon in his right hand. "I definitely heard them. How could I not? I'm just glad I could get it done."

Kinsler, standing in the dugout, said it was an emotional moment for the entire team.

"The whole stadium is chanting his name, and I get the chills," Kinsler said. "I don't know how he stayed focused up there, but he had a heck of an at-bat. He kept battling and battling."

Napoli, though, always prefers talking about defense more than hitting. He's done a nice job handling a pitching staff that recorded 19 shutouts this season, while doing a quality job of blocking pitches and throwing out baserunners.

"It was a huge play because he was trying to get to third base with less than two out," Napoli said of throwing out Upton. "... I kind of got labeled as not such a good catcher. I always thought that I was a good catcher, so to show it means a lot."

When Napoli threw out Upton, the crowd began chanting his name.

Again.

Jean-Jacques Taylor is a columnist for ESPNDallas.com.

Jean-Jacques Taylor joined ESPNDallas.com in August 2011. A native of Dallas, Taylor spent the past 20 years writing for The Dallas Morning News, where he covered high schools sports, the Texas Rangers and spent 11 seasons covering the Dallas Cowboys before becoming a general columnist in 2006.

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