Performer of the Game: Texas catcher Napoli
Before knocking game-winning hit, veteran stars behind plate
DETROIT -- If anything hurts Mike Napoli, it isn't a collision at the plate like the one he experienced on Wednesday when Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera bowled into him trying to score the go-ahead run in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series.
No, what still stings Napoli is the reputation that stuck with him out of Anaheim that he was never a good enough defensive catcher to satisfy Angels manager Mike Scioscia.
That rap is quickly being put to rest, as Napoli made two defensive plays on Wednesday for Texas that were so big, they nearly overshadowed his go-ahead base hit in the top of the 11th off Tigers closer Jose Valverde, which helped lift the Rangers to a 7-3 victory that has them on the brink of a return to the World Series.
First, Napoli held onto a perfect throw from right fielder Nelson Cruz and absorbed the blow from the 240-pound Cabrera to complete an eighth-inning double play, warding off Detroit's attempt to shake loose from a 3-3 tie.
Then the 6-foot, 215-pound catcher gunned down Tigers leadoff man Austin Jackson on a stolen-base attempt in the bottom of the 10th, erasing Detroit's final scoring threat and ultimately leaving Cabrera standing on deck instead of getting a shot to win the game before Texas blew things open in the 11th.
Spin to Win
"I'm glad I can do it on the defensive side," said Napoli, who has become an integral part of the Rangers this season after being acquired from Toronto via trade last offseason. "I kind of got labeled as being not too good behind the plate. I'm glad I can show it and be myself and just help us win. It's been great."
Napoli's new teammates scoff at the notion that he lacks defensive ability, given the impact he's had throughout this season.
"He's really a great defensive catcher," said Rangers veteran Michael Young. "I'd love for the person who started that label to stand up and raise his hand and apologize."
Adrian Beltre, a two-time Gold Glove Award-winning third baseman, appreciates what he's seen all season.
"Napoli has been great," Beltre said. "I don't know where that [reputation] came from. I played against him for a while in Seattle, and we never talked about him being a bad defensive catcher. This year, he's been showing it the whole year. He calls a great game, he throws the ball extremely well. That was a big throw when he got Jackson out today. He's been huge for us."
Napoli's new manager, Ron Washington, certainly has no qualms about what he's been getting behind the plate from the 29-year-old Florida native. For Washington, there's far more to Napoli than the .320 batting average and 30 home runs he delivered this season.
"Mike is a quality baseball player," said Washington. "I call him a dirtbag because he's a gamer. He tries to do whatever it takes to help his team win a ballgame. ... Whatever part of the game we need him to excel in, he's been excelling in it. We are very happy to have him as a part of our club."
Napoli also made a key play at the plate in Game 4 of the AL Division Series, when he absorbed a punishing blow from Tampa Bay infielder Sean Rodriguez. Napoli said both were similar situations, though he had more time to set himself for Cabrera.
Beltre, who is as tough as they come, appreciated the effort from his third-base view.
"I was praying the throw was early enough where Napoli had time to react," said Beltre, "because if we have the same situation we had in Tampa with Rodriguez, I don't know with that big boy coming at you. We were lucky enough that the throw was perfect. It was early enough to give him time to get down a little and defend himself."
And now, perhaps Napoli won't have to defend himself so much from questions regarding his defensive prowess. Big plays like these on the playoff stage should go a long way toward silencing any critics that might remain.
"It's real satisfying," Napoli said. "I'm back there, showing what I can do. I always felt like I could be a good catcher and get it done. I'm showing that now.
"I want to be a complete player, offense and defense. I know I can do a lot behind the plate to help the team, even if I'm not hitting. I want to do both. When it's not going with the bat, I know I can fall back on catching and try to do the best I can to help us win behind the plate."
Now, Napoli and the Rangers sit one win from the World Series. And he'll do his best on Thursday to help clear that final hurdle, though he knows the challenge is large with Detroit set to start Justin Verlander.
"It's going to be tough," Napoli said. "We've got [to face] one of the best pitchers in the game tomorrow, so we're going to have to try to scrap runs any way we can. We need good pitching and defense. We're going to face a good pitcher, but when we go out there, we expect to win."