Commentary

Mike Napoli does it all in Game 4

Rangers gush over catcher's all-around performance in victory over Tigers

Updated: October 13, 2011, 7:43 AM ET
By Richard Durrett | ESPNDallas.com

DETROIT -- Scott Servais looked like a proud father as he stood outside the visiting clubhouse and smiled at Mike Napoli's sterling performance in the Texas Rangers' 7-3 Game 4 win over the Detroit Tigers that has them one win from a second consecutive World Series trip.

[+] EnlargeMiguel Cabrera
AP Photo/Paul SancyaMike Napoli absorbed an eighth-inning collision with Miguel Cabrera and tagged him out, one of the many marks the Rangers catcher left in Game 4.
In addition to serving as the club's senior director of player development, Servais, a catcher in the big leagues for 11 years, instructs the major league backstops. And he takes pride when one of "his" catchers does well.

And boy, did Napoli do well Wednesday. In a pivotal Game 4 with the score tied, Napoli was bowled over by Miguel Cabrera in the eighth inning but hung on to get the out. He then made a terrific throw to second to get Austin Jackson trying to steal in the 10th inning and singled to center to score the go-ahead run in the bottom of the 11th.

The winning hit came after Tigers manager Jim Leyland decided to intentionally walk Adrian Beltre and have closer Jose Valverde pitch to Napoli, a risky move in what Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon has coined "the Year of the Napoli."

"It was just a tremendous performance," Servais said.

Servais wasn't surprised. Napoli has done it with regularity since early July, when he returned from the disabled list after dealing with a strained left oblique muscle.

Servais had heard all of the conventional wisdom on Napoli. That the 29-year-old had a good bat but wasn't among the game's elites defensively or as a game caller. But after several sessions in spring training in Surprise, Ariz., and some work early in the season, Servais knew the Rangers had made one of the shrewdest trades of the offseason.

"He's a better athlete than anybody gives him credit for," Servais said. "He's better than what we thought we were getting. We made some adjustments early on to how he throws and he's run with it. If you're going to make a textbook throw and receive a ball at the plate, he did both in this game. Mechanically, it's as good as you can do it."

Servais said the highlight of the game for him was Napoli's rope to second base in the bottom of the 10th to retire Jackson and eliminate the chance that the Tigers could get the winning run in scoring position. The throw had to be right on line because Jackson got a good enough jump and had very good speed.

"He got his foot down in the right spot, had good release and the arm stayed online," Servais said. "It had to be prefect and it was. And it came in a crucial part of the game."

[+] EnlargeMike Napoli
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireMike Napoli's go-ahead RBI single in the 11th capped an impressive night for the Rangers' backstop.
Napoli's bat has certainly been a critical component of the Rangers' lineup this season. But the scorching lumber -- he hit .383 with 18 homers and 42 RBIs in the second half, though a bit cooler since the playoffs started -- shouldn't provide a smoke screen to his excellent defense and game calling.

"I think he's probably the best catcher in baseball, in my opinion, all the way around," said Rangers reliever Scott Feldman, who was on the mound when Napoli threw out Jackson. "He can hit, he can call a great game, good receiver, good thrower and blocker. It still boggles my mind how we were able to get him like that. He's been a huge addition for us."

Servais told Napoli halfway through the season that the job he was doing guiding the young pitching staff was some of the best work he'd ever seen out of a catcher.

"Some guys, when things get tough, just say, 'OK, let's throw fastball,'" Servais said. "He won't do that. He makes them throw other pitches and hang in."

Napoli said it comes from preparation and taking time to learn his pitchers' tendencies, something that has improved with each outing.

"I know what these guys' best stuff is and I'm going to use their best stuff in certain situations," Napoli said. "We prepare and talk and just work at it. I talk to them a lot about it."

Feldman and others in a loud and excited Rangers clubhouse mentioned another Napoli characteristic: toughness.

Proof of that hangs in Napoli's locker at Comerica Park. There's a photo of Napoli standing up at home plate, mask off, ball in hand, staring down at a runner just gunned down. It appeared to be a blurry snapshot of his Game 4 collision with Cabrera in the eighth. Delmon Young hit a fly ball to right field and Nelson Cruz caught it and delivered a one-hop strike to home plate. Napoli gloved it, turned and absorbed a blow from Cabrera.

If you believe the media guides, Cabrera had a 25-pound advantage on Napoli. But the catcher hung in and got the out.

"I know in that situation there's probably going to be a collision at the plate or it's going to be a close play," Napoli said. "It was a crucial time of the game. Nellie gave me a good throw, gave me enough time to where I can brace and get low and it was just a great play."

Napoli then helped guide Darren Oliver, Feldman and Neftali Feliz the rest of the way as the Rangers earned another 11th-inning win.

"I feel good behind the plate, and I'm confident back there," Napoli said. "I always thought I was a pretty good catcher and it's come together. I like working with these pitchers and it's working out. I want to be a complete player, offense and defense. I know I can do a lot for the team even if I'm not hitting."

That drive to show he had the total game has motivated Napoli from the moment the Los Angeles Angels shipped him to the Toronto Blue Jays in January. Before Napoli could even put on a Blue Jays cap, Rangers general manager Jon Daniels pounced and traded Frank Francisco north of the border to get the scrappy catcher.

"He had something to prove, and you love to get competitors with something to prove," said Don Welke, a longtime scout and special assistant to Daniels. "He wanted to beat the Angels as soon as he got here. He wanted to win. We didn't know he would be this good, but we knew he had heart."

The Rangers like obtaining players desperate to prove something. Josh Hamilton wanted to bounce back from the drug and alcohol issues that plagued his early baseball career. Beltre wanted to win championships and shed the label that he was merely a contract-year player. And Napoli was ready to prove to the baseball world that he can be the kind of all-around catcher he always believed he could be.

"I'm back there showing what I can do," Napoli said. "I always felt like I could be a good catcher and get it done. I'm showing that now."

And everyone -- from Servais to Welke to his teammates and opposing managers Maddon and Leyland -- can see that.

Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.

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