Mike Napoli turns pressure into success
Rangers' best postseason performer once more uses taste for spotlight in key spots
ARLINGTON, Texas -- No words remain to put Mike Napoli's postseason performance into proper perspective.
He's been all of that. And more.
Time after time after time during the Texas Rangers' championship pilgrimage that began 25 days ago against Tampa Bay, Napoli has been the team's best player.
So none of us should be surprised that, once again, his array of offensive and defensive skills led the Rangers to a win.
This time, Napoli's eighth-inning double drove in the go-ahead runs, and he threw out two baserunners as the Rangers rallied to beat the St. Louis Cardinals 4-2 and move within one victory of their seventh champagne-and-ginger ale shower in the past 13 months.
Pressure doesn't faze Napoli because he craves the spotlight. The more red-and-blue-clad towel-waving Texas fans screaming his name, the better.
Not everyone can handle pressure. Some players wilt under pressure; Napoli doesn't, because he views those opportunities as chances to succeed.
Really, there was no one Rangers manager Ron Washington would have preferred to have at the plate with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the eighth inning than the man he affectionately calls "Dirtbag."
"He has the patience to wait for something he's looking for," Washington said. "All those strikes he took from [Chris] Carpenter early in the game never bothered him because they weren't pitches he wanted to hit.
"When he sees a pitch he wants to hit, he lets the bat fly -- and he ain't missing them."
The situation called for a fly ball, and Washington figured Napoli would deliver one because he wasn't going to swing at a pitch unless he could elevate it.
St. Louis manager Tony La Russa helped Napoli out by not having a right-hander ready to face him -- something about the bullpen coach didn't know he was supposed to get closer Jason Motte ready.
In the World Series? Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.
Can you imagine Washington giving that excuse to the media after a World Series game with a straight face? That's what I thought.
“So Napoli, acquired primarily in the offseason by the Rangers to bash left-handed pitchers, faced Marc Rzepczynski, a left-handed specialist.
When he sees a pitch he wants to hit, he lets the bat fly -- and he ain't missing them.” -- Rangers manager Ron Washington on Mike Napoli
Lefties hit .163 against him in the regular season; right-handed batters hit .275.
You already know what happened next.
Napoli ripped a slider to right-center field, driving in two runs and giving the Rangers their first series lead. He pounded his hands together as he trotted into second base.
Once again, he had delivered.
He has two homers and nine RBIs in the World Series; his teammates have four homers and 10 RBIs.
"I feel really good. It's weird. It looks that way," said Napoli, when asked if he's in the zone so many athletes describe.
"You want to have the crowd cheering your name, and you want to be the guy to get the job done. If you don't live for those situations and you don't want to play on this stage, then I don't know. You have to want to be the hero."
Napoli has worked hard on his skill set to be an excellent player in every aspect of the game, from hitting to navigating his pitchers through a game without their best stuff to throwing out baserunners.
He needed all the guile he could muster to help C.J. Wilson, who threw 108 pitches and labored through 5 1/3 innings. All that matters is that when Wilson left the game, only two of the nine baserunners -- he allowed four hits, while walking five -- had crossed the plate, and the score was tied 2-2.
LaRussa tried a hit-and-run on a 3-2 pitch to Pujols. Neftali Feliz struck out Pujols and Napoli threw out Craig.
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Then the catcher pumped his right fist in the air.
"He's had a huge impact on our team," Rangers first-base coach Gary Pettis said. "Everybody wants a guy like him on your team. They call him 'Dirtbag' because he's a gritty, gutsy emotional player."
One more win and they'll also have to call Napoli "champion."
Jean-Jacques Taylor is a columnist for ESPNDallas.com.