© 2011 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
ARLINGTON -- A chant bearing his name winds its way through the stands, growing louder with each round. Signs highlighting his name -- "Nap Time" is a particularly memorable favorite -- are held high. Wonderful praises bearing his name are uttered from teammate after teammate.
This is life in "The Year of the Napoli," as its come to be known.
This is what it's like to be Mike Napoli in October 2011.
"On this stage?" he said after the Rangers' 4-0 victory in Game 4 of the World Series on Sunday night. "It doesn't get better than that."
The stage was set again for Napoli in the bottom of the sixth Sunday night at Rangers Ballpark. The Rangers and Cardinals had shifted this Fall Classic back into the tight, tense pitchers' duel side of the spectrum after a momentary eruption of runs a night before. For that, much credit goes to Napoli, as he was the one putting down the signs and attempting to control the emotions of young Derek Holland as he crafted a masterpiece on the mound, but more on that in a bit. In this moment, all that mattered was the possibility presented to Napoli at the plate.
It was a 1-0 game. The Rangers had grabbed a first-inning run but found their bats to be strangely inept at cashing in on the many chances afforded them by Edwin Jackson's wobbly command. With one out, Nelson Cruz and David Murphy had each drawn a walk in succession. Five previous walks had all resulted in a stranded runner, but Jackson, it seemed, was in clear and present danger of tipping over this time.
Napoli, who had been bumped to the No. 8 spot in manager Ron Washington's latest lineup tinkering, stepped to the plate, and the Cards went in stall mode. They had Mitchell Boggs warming in the bullpen, and they wanted him to get a couple more pitches in. Yadier Molina kicked some dirt off his cleats. Jackson bided his time. And all the while, Napoli started to think ahead.
"I knew Boggs has a good sinker and throws hard," he would say later. "You want to get things started. The last thing I wanted to do was jam myself and hit it into the ground. So I'm obviously looking fastball. I was looking for something up."
Up. It's the direction that has defined the Napoli stock this season in more ways than just the symbolic.
To Napoli, the high heat was once a teasing temptress. He's the first to admit he couldn't hit it. At least, not with consistency.
"I used to swing at a lot of high fastballs and miss," he said. "I used to run into one up there now and again and thought I could hit it all the time, and then I'd swing and miss."
That all changed this season. Napoli hit 30 home runs in the regular season, 12 of which came on high heat.
"This year," he said, "I've just been shortening up and just seeing the ball to contact, really. I'm not trying to hit a home run every time. I think back when I was younger, I was always thinking I was a power hitter and had to hit a home run. Now I know it's all right to hit a ball the other way through second and first."
It's a more mature approach, and it worked wonders for Napoli in the second half and then in the journey through October. He had the game-winning hit in Game 2 of the American League Division Series against the Rays, then the go-ahead homer in Game 3. He had the go-ahead RBI single in Game 4 of the AL Championship Series against Detroit, shortly after taking a 270-pound blow from Miguel Cabrera to make the play at the plate for a pivotal out.
None of that, though, compared to what he did on this night and in this situation, because the import of involvement increases exponentially with each passing game at this point.
Napoli knows it's important to work the count, and he's done so quite consistently of late. But when Boggs came in, it took Napoli exactly one pitch to find that high fastball he was looking for. It was up and in, about even with the letters -- similar, in fact, to the placement of the fastball Alexi Ogando served up to Albert Pujols in Game 3.
And Napoli did with this pitch what Pujols did with that one, which is to say he crushed it for all it was worth.
"I feel like I can get a ground ball from anybody," Boggs said, but I just left it up. I think he was looking for it, and he sold out, and he got it."
The three-run shot gave the Rangers the 4-0 lead, and it was a lead they would not relinquish with Holland on the hill. The Series is even as a result.
"It was shocking," teammate Ian Kinsler said of Napoli's blast. "Usually he's taking pitches, trying to work a pitcher. But he just stepped right up there and smashed that ball over the fence. He made it look pretty easy."
Napoli made it sound pretty easy, too.
"You've just got to try to get on top of it as much as you can," he said. "I just kind of reacted and got on top of it."
The Rangers were on top from beginning to end in this one because of Holland, certainly, but also because of Napoli's influence at the plate and behind it. It's well-established that Holland struggles when he loses focus, and it was Napoli's job to keep him from straying in this start.
"We have a very strong chemistry with each other," Holland said. "We hang out off the field, on the field. We talk all the time and pick each other's brains and talk about our approach to certain hitters and what to do. He does a really good job of controlling my emotions, making sure I don't get ahead of myself. You probably saw a couple times tonight he was telling me to square up. Especially in-between innings, there were a couple times I'd throw the ball and I wasn't throwing it right where I wanted to. So he was keeping me in check, basically."
Like all good catchers, Napoli seemed to get more satisfaction out of Holland's outing than his own big blast.
"It helped our team get a cushion," he said of the homer. "I'm glad I could contribute and help our team win. It feels good, but I'm more proud of the job me and Derek did tonight."
Maybe Napoli's simply grown accustomed to his own heroics by this point. He could be forgiven if that's the case. But his latest placement in the No. 8 spot speaks to the overall depth of this Rangers lineup, and the timing of the tweak worked out wonderfully for Washington.
And so as Napoli circled the bags, the chants circled the stadium. "The Year of the Napoli" continues.