ARLINGTON -- A year ago, Mike Napoli wasn't just a rival to the Rangers. He was the kind of player on the other side that got under the skin of his enemy and, by the way, he wasn't necessarily fond of some of the Rangers, either.
In the 10 months since he became one of their own, the Rangers have found out enough about their catcher to know that his complete and clutch performance Monday night in Game 5 of the World Series is the type of game that's right in his wheelhouse.
From squeezing everything out of every pitcher the Rangers used and throwing out two runners from behind the plate to delivering -- once again -- the game-winning hit, this time a two-run double in the eighth inning, Napoli did it all for the Rangers in their 4-2 victory that pushes them to a 3-2 advantage over the Cardinals.
"I want to be a complete player," Napoli said. "For me to throw out guys like that, I think shows that I can do it behind the plate and get my pitchers through innings and keep the score low. It means a lot to me to show that I can do that and be that complete player."
Spin to Win
Now the Rangers are one win away from completing their quest to win the World Series, and it's Napoli who's leading the way. Go figure -- this is the same guy some of them might not have been very fond of a year ago, only wearing the right uniform and wearing out the opposition time and time again.
"I always had a lot of respect for Nap, but he came from a division rival," said infielder Michael Young. "About halfway through Spring Training when we started to get to know him a little more, it's been a lot of fun since then.
"He's a great teammate, a great player, and he's become one of my really good friends. It's been a lot of fun to see him coming to a new team and really just take off."
|Sandy Alomar Jr.||1997||CLE||7||10|
What they knew they'd get in their former rival with the Angels, they're getting: This is a talented hitter with power, and he's delivering in a big way.
Actually, Napoli was perhaps the game's best hitter down the stretch of the regular season, batting .383 with 18 homers, a .466 on-base percentage and a .706 slugging percentage after the All-Star break. He hasn't slowed down one bit in October, making each at-bat look like he's as comfortable as he'd be in a game in August.
"I'm going up there and just doing what I did in the regular season," Napoli said.
Napoli now has nine RBIs in five World Series games, ranking sixth all-time in that category and the most since Sandy Alomar Jr. went for 10 in 1997. Including his three-run homer that was the decisive blow in Game 4, Napoli now has three homers and 14 RBIs overall in the postseason.
Yet he's giving them so much more.
"At this point, I'm not surprised by anything he does," said David Murphy, who set up Napoli's heroics with a single to load the bases. "He's Superman right now. I knew we were getting a good player when we traded for him, but he has exceeded all expectations.
"We thought we were getting a light defensive catcher who could hit for power but he was going to strike out a lot and not hit for high average. He's hit for high average, he sees a lot of pitches at the plate, he has great at-bats, he gets big hits, he throws guys out, he calls a great game. What else do you need?"
No doubt, Napoli stepped into the phone booth an enemy and changed into a friend in the span of a year, having been traded over from the Rangers' fiercest AL West rival -- albeit from Toronto after being dealt there from the Angels -- in January.
C.J. Wilson, the Game 5 starter for the Rangers who was aided by Napoli's guidance to get into the sixth inning Monday, says it used to be a matter of familiarity breeding contempt. Now that familiarity is making everyone content.
Through Game 5, he has a catcher's ERA of 1.54 in the Fall Classic, so along with throwing out Allen Craig twice Monday, he's continuing to make the pitching staff better.
"He's batted off all of us, so he knows exactly what our stuff looks like, he knows exactly where it comes through the zone, and he's got a familiarity from an enemy standpoint," Wilson said. "So he's kind of like a double-agent. He's got all their info, all our info and he's able to put it all together in a way that actually makes us better through his understanding of the game."
Clearly, Napoli is showing that he's a better catcher than some might have thought, including the Angels. They had him splitting time with Jeff Mathis for years and then started shifting Napoli into more of an offensive role, playing him at first base or using him as a designated hitter.
Said Young: "Sometimes in this game guys get stuck unfairly with labels and they're really difficult to shake. To Nap's credit, he's shaking his label and he's done an incredible job for us behind the plate. It's right there with what he's done for us offensively, and that's saying a lot considering how good he's been offensively for us."
Perhaps it was prescient, but Rangers fans have taken to chanting Napoli's name every at-bat since October began in a familiar cadence. As it turns out, it fits just fine.
NAH-PO-LEE! NAH-PO-LEE! NAH-PO-LEE!
That sounds a lot like what he might be if the Rangers pull of the World Series victory: MVP! MVP! MVP!
Napoli appreciates what he hears from the crowd, just as he appreciates every opportunity he gets to perform in the World Series at such a high level.
"It's something a player should love, the home crowd chanting your name and you getting the job done," Napoli said. "If you don't like these situations, you probably shouldn't be playing, especially on that stage. You should want to be the hero and get the job done."
Mission accomplished. Again. And again.
"He's doing it all," Wilson said. "I don't know if he can make pizza, but whatever he's putting on the menu, I'm in."
Apparently, he's still pretty good at riling up his rivals, too. Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter was seen barking at Napoli on Monday night, although Napoli said afterward he didn't know what that was about.
Once again, Napoli's doing a pretty good job of frustrating his rivals to the point where they shout at him with seemingly everything he does.
That's OK with him, and it's just fine with the Rangers, too.
"I don't know, maybe they don't like me like the Texas Rangers didn't like me," Napoli said. "Maybe that's it. I'm actually a good guy. Ask a lot of guys in this clubhouse."
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.