Blue-collar Napoli provides cushion for Rangers
You know, built bottom heavy, a little on the round side, an enduring three-day scruff, rakishly unapplied shirt buttons, the hours in a crouch that may or may not be totally attractive from behind.
All says plumber.
But the forearms, the lower half of a built-in dishwasher, loopy smile, affable manner, the lumberjack swing, all says ballplayer too. Says catcher. Says throw the ball and I’ll put a savage hack on it and we’ll find out who’s the better man.
So along comes Napoli on Sunday night in a swirling pitchers’ duel, Game 4 of the World Series, the Texas Rangers’ season a kitchen floor six inches flooded, no real harm yet, but getting soggy.
Napoli was batting eighth, really the last resort, in that spot because Rangers manager Ron Washington was compelled to split up his back-end left-handed hitters, not because Napoli looks – or performs – anything like a No. 8 hitter.
Now, everybody loves Derek Holland(notes) right now, but you can be sure at the time nobody wanted him pitching into the late innings with a 1-0 lead, even if he did tie for the American League lead in regular-season shutouts. The St. Louis Cardinals were a swing away, as no one who witnessed the previous night’s game would forget.
[Related: Holland delivers coming-of-age start]
What the Rangers needed was runs, something ferocious that might answer the tour de force of Albert Pujols(notes). And when Edwin Jackson(notes) walked two batters with one out in the sixth, Napoli was on deck.
Funny how a game will find a guy, how it’ll find his bat barrel. A year and a half ago, Napoli had an at-bat against Mitchell Boggs(notes), the only one of his career. He’d seen three pitches, lashing the third into Busch Stadium’s right field for a double.
Napoli hadn’t given it much thought since, until Sunday night, when Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina(notes) made a long slow walk to have a long talk with Jackson, knocked some dirt from his spikes, then trudged back to the plate. Molina stood for a while, slowly eased into his crouch, and then Jackson faked a pickoff throw to second base. The Cardinals had killed about five minutes, allowing Boggs a chance to warm up, and manager Tony La Russa approached the mound to take the ball from Jackson.
Had he wanted, Napoli had the time to reconsider Game 3, his error, its contribution to that awful loss, but that was gone. What he had was in front of him, Boggs finishing his warm-up throws, the memory of a heavy sinker, and the idea that Boggs’ intention was to induce a ground ball, a double play, and save a 1-0 deficit.
That’s what he was thinking about.
“I was thinking fastball,” Napoli said. “He throws me a slider, I would look pretty silly.”
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Nelson Cruz(notes) led off second base. David Murphy(notes) led off first. Boggs threw the fastball. It wasn’t down, the one that Napoli might have rolled over to kill the inning. It was up, near the letters, and inside.
If it seems you’d seen that pitch before, you had. The night before, Alexi Ogando(notes) threw it to Pujols, who knocked it over the bleachers in left field. Not too many hitters turn on that pitch, hit it that far, and keep it fair.
Pujols is one. Napoli is another. There are others, but it’s a short list.
Napoli reared back like he does, and powered through the pitch just as his front heel kicked up dirt, like he was trying to fell an oak with a single ax swing. Think Dustin Pedroia(notes), but beefier.
“He caught me off guard,” Murphy said. “I mean, first pitch, new pitcher. But he put such a great swing on it. I knew from the moment he connected it was gone. Nap is a very smart hitter. It looked as if he was looking for that pitch.”
The Rangers led 4-0, which is how Game 4 would end. The series swung again, tied at two games apiece, and the crowd at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington breathed again. Their love affair with Napoli, given away by the Los Angeles Angels, flipped away by the Toronto Blue Jays, swelled again.
The people chanted his name, insisted on a curtain call. A sign from the stands: “Napoli Ever After.”
Who doesn’t love the laborer, the guy who can fix everything, the last phone number you call before the whole place springs a leak? The man with the undershirt that reads “DirtBag,” here where they have, you know, lots of dirt?
Nearing the end of the Year of the Napoli, he waved his helmet. They cheered that three-run home run, that .333 batting average in the World Series, that thunderclap of a trade that made him theirs, a World Series that isn’t going anywhere just yet.
“It’s awesome,” said Napoli, a smile spreading across his round stubbled face. “On this stage? You got people calling your name? A curtain call? It doesn’t get any better than that.”
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