October 04, 2011
On Jan. 21, the Los Angeles Angels traded catcher Mike Napoli(notes) and outfielder Juan Rivera(notes) to the Toronto Blue Jays for the enormous contract and deteriorating skills of Vernon Wells(notes).
Not the most auspicious start to one's year, but the uncertainty must have served as a motivator. Because once in Texas, the 29-year-old catcher embarked on the breakout season many in Anaheim anticipated he would if manager Mike Scioscia wasn't so down on his defensive skill set, or attached to Jeff Mathis.
Earning the opening day start over Yorvit Torrealba(notes), Napoli jacked a three-run home run. He also homered in his next start, and the roll continued from there. Playing in 113 games, Napoli would achieve career highs in home runs (30), RBIs (75), batting average (.320), on-base percentage (.414), and several advanced statistical categories that I don't understand or have the time to write up.
Simply stated: Mike Napoli had a strong season for the Rangers, and he continued that strong season — both literally and figuratively — hitting the go-ahead two-run homer in their pivotal Game 3 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday night.
Napoli's game-changing swing came with Texas down 1-0 in the seventh. As that score would indicate, the game had been a lights out pitcher's duel between David Price(notes) and Colby Lewis(notes) to that point, and opportunties for both sides had been limited. But Napoli changed it all around quickly, choking up with two strikes, and driving Price's offering over the left-field wall.
"Napoli has just been—this is the year of the Napoli, man," Maddon said. "He is just hot. And he got a pitch."
He got a pitch to hit, he made them pay. But he also called several quality pitches for Colby Lewis, guiding him through six one-hit innings.
He did an outstanding job as a signal-caller, and then Napoli capped the night off with a terrific throw to catch B.J. Upton(notes) stealing while representing the tying run in the eighth. Granted, Ron Washington and his staff were prepared and called for the pitch-out on the play, but Napoli still executed it and changed the dynamic of the game again by getting Upton off the bases.
It was certainly an all-around praiseworthy effort from Napoli, and he received plenty from his appreciative manager.
"He's a dirt bag," Washington explained. "He is a baseball player. He really is. We always knew he had the power. We always knew he had the on-base percentage. And this year he put it together."
"Put it together" is really the key phrase. As Washington said, the abillity was always there. The power numbers were there, and he was always a strong source of RBIs. But the increase in average (82 points) and the improved defense have elevated his status from contributer to difference-maker.
With that in mind, it makes you wonder how much the landscape in the American League changed over that four-day span in January. Where would the Angels be with Napoli? Where would the Rangers be without him? And which two teams would be on the brink of the American League Championship Series had the Blue Jays kept him?
We'll never know, and the Rangers don't care.