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Must C Clutch: Napoli puts Rangers ahead in the 11th

DETROIT -- Standing in his office after it was all over, Rangers manager Ron Washington was exhausted and almost overcome with emotion. He is one win away from taking his team back to the World Series, but he may never go through a game quite like he experienced on Wednesday night in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series.

"It was a great team effort, a great effort all around," Washington said while his players were celebrating down the hall. "They really picked up the old skipper tonight. They really did."

Right fielder Nelson Cruz and catcher Mike Napoli were at the forefront of the effort with the two biggest hits and the two biggest defensive plays of the rain-delayed game, lifting the Rangers to another heart-stopping 7-3 victory over the Tigers in 11 innings at Comerica Park.

Napoli put the Rangers ahead with an RBI single in the 11th off All-Star closer Jose Valverde and Cruz delivered the crushing blow with a three-run home run. The Rangers, with a 3-1 lead in the ALCS, now need just one more victory to return to the World Series for the second time in as many years.

"What a game," outfielder David Murphy said of the contest, delayed 2 hours, 13 minutes due to the weather. "Back and forth, hard-fought, so many great plays. A lot of fun, especially when it ends like that."

"If you don't like baseball, you probably like it now after watching these games," Napoli said.

Cruz also hit a walk-off grand slam in the 11th inning of Game 2 and is now the first player in Major League history to hit two extra-inning home runs in the same postseason series. He has four home runs and nine RBIs in four games.

Besides the home run, Cruz threw out Miguel Cabrera -- who was put on base by a surprising intentional walk ordered by Washington -- from medium right field trying to score the go-ahead run in the eighth. Napoli, in another big defensive play, gunned down Austin Jackson trying to steal second in the bottom of the 10th.

"October baseball at its best," first baseman Michael Young said. "The more you play games like this, the more respect you gain for the other team. The Tigers have a great team. They're playing hard, and their pitching has been great. It's been a real nail-biter but a lot of fun. But we're going to focus on tomorrow and see if we can get one more."

The Rangers will send left-hander C.J. Wilson to the mound for Game 5 at 3:19 p.m. CT on Thursday, with AL Cy Young Award front-runner Justin Verlander scheduled to pitch for the Tigers. Overall, 26 of 32 teams that have held a 3-1 lead in a best-of-seven LCS have gone on to the World Series.

"We can definitely taste it, but we're facing one of the best pitchers in baseball tomorrow," second baseman Ian Kinsler said. "It will be a difficult task, but hopefully we can get one more and close it out."

This one will be remembered for the big plays and big hits from Napoli, Cruz and others. All of that did pick up Washington, who made one of the biggest decisions in his five years as manager of the Rangers when he intentionally walked Cabrera. At the time, it was a tied game with one out and nobody on base in the bottom of the eighth.

"The thing was, two nights in a row, we tried to pitch around him and he still hurt us," Washington said. "If I had let that guy swing the bat and he hits a home run, I wouldn't have been able to live with myself. It almost backfired."

It did not. Instead Cruz came through with the defensive play of the game, and it was just one play out of so many that ultimately decided the affair.

"Tonight was a total team effort," Young said. "Everybody in the lineup contributed in one way or another."

For five innings, the game belonged to Tigers starter Rick Porcello. Cabrera's two-run double off of Rangers starter Matt Harrison gave the right-hander a 2-0 lead in the third, and he took a two-hitter into the sixth. But a single by Murphy and a one-out double by Kinsler scored one run. After Kinsler stole third, Elvis Andrus singled to right-center to tie the game. A wild pickoff throw by Porcello moved Andrus into scoring position, and Young brought him home with a single to center.

That gave the Rangers a 3-2 lead, and Washington turned it over to Alexi Ogando. But, for once, the right-hander could not hold it. Instead, Brandon Inge tied it with a two-out home run in the bottom of the seventh and ultimately led to Washington's big decision.

Mike Adams took over in the eighth and got Ryan Raburn on a grounder to short for the first out. That's when Washington ordered Cabrera's intentional walk, even though he represented the potential winning run.

"I was very surprised," Adams said. "I was definitely prepared to face him. I was surprised, but it was his decision and the best decision."

Victor Martinez followed with a grounder through the right side for a single that moved Cabrera to third. Delmon Young then hit a fly ball down the right-field line that Cruz caught at medium depth while putting himself in proper throwing position to deliver a perfect strike to Napoli at the plate. Cabrera came in hard and bowled over Napoli, who hung onto the baseball for the final out of the inning.

"It was a great decision to send him," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "If the throw is off line, he makes it. You make him throw him out at the plate. It was the right call. Cruz threw it on the money."

Napoli's other defensive highlight came in the bottom of the 10th after winning pitcher Scott Feldman, with one out, hit Austin Jackson with a pitch. With Raburn at the plate and Cabrera on deck, Jackson tried to steal second, but Napoli threw him out.

"He made an excellent throw right there, and we needed him to make an excellent throw," Washington said.

Valverde, after two scoreless innings from Joaquin Benoit, entered the game in the 10th and retired the side in order. But Josh Hamilton got the Rangers started in the 11th with a double into the right-field corner.

Valverde struck out Young, and Leyland decided to intentionally walk Adrian Beltre to pitch to Napoli in the hopes of setting up a double play. Instead, Napoli hit a 1-1 fastball into center field for a single that scored Hamilton.

Cruz then crushed Valverde's next pitch, sending a fastball into the Rangers bullpen in left-center field for a three-run home run. He is on the cusp of winning ALCS Most Valuable Player honors if the Rangers can finish off the series soon.

"You almost can't describe him," Murphy said. "Nelson Cruz loves the spotlight and he loves the clutch. You can almost guarantee when he comes up in the clutch, he's going to get a big hit. Or if you need a big defensive play, he is going to make it."

Cruz was one of many who came up big on Wednesday, and now the Rangers are one win away from the World Series again. Comments