It's his year: Napoli's homer lifts Rangers

Mike Napoli's two-run homer in the seventh inning helped lift the Rangers by the Rays

It is the year of the Napoli.

So says Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon, who proclaimed it such after his team went down two games to one in the American League Division Series to the Texas Rangers – mostly because of a wallop and a whip by said catcher.

A funny moment came when Maddon exited the postgame interview room and counterpart Ron Washington entered. The Rangers manager began fielding questions and Mike Napoli(notes) himself walked in and sat down next to TV reporter Mark Schwartz, who raised his hand and asked about the “Year of the Napoli.”

Napoli, unaware that this is the year of himself, raised his eyebrows in shock.

Schwartz, apparently unaware the subject of his question was seated right next to him, rattled off some impressive statistics: Napoli has a better OPS than Adrian Gonzalez(notes), Albert Pujols(notes), Robinson Cano(notes) and assorted other mashers.

Hearing this, Napoli thrust both arms into the air in glee, much as he did when a Rangers' double play brought the final out in their 4-3 victory in Game 3 on Monday.

It’s good to be the Napoli.

This moment was all too appropriate: The Rangers catcher has sneaked up on everyone this year. Sure, everyone knew he could rake, with that Luzinski-ish swing and the long home runs that look more like Bubba Watson tee shots.

“He’s strong as an ox,” said teammate Michael Young(notes).

But the man is not a cartoon. He’s big, yeah, but he’s not a belch-and-belt Kingman clone.

“He’s a complete hitter,” said pitcher CJ Wilson(notes).

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He sure is now. Napoli has worked hard on shortening his swing, especially with two strikes. “His two-strike approach has been fantastic,” Maddon said. That’s a big part of why Napoli’s 2011 home run total (30) is a career high, as is this year’s RBI total (75), his slugging percentage (.631) and that OPS (1.046). But most importantly, his strikeouts plummeted from 137 last year with the Angels to 85 in '11.

In the past, David Price(notes) getting two strikes on Napoli would often lead to a third. But in the seventh inning Monday, with his team down 1-0 and Adrian Beltre(notes) on second base, Napoli fouled off two pitches and took two to run the count to 2-2. Then he swatted a fastball over the left-field fence and changed the series.

The swing looked like something from a frat softball game, but that’s just the effect of watching a very strong man swing a very thin bat. Napoli was only trying to “see the ball to contact and put the ball in play.” He only appears inefficient to an outsider.

And oddly he has the same rep as a fielder.

“Sometimes you get stuck with a label,” Young said. “Clearly it was a bad label. I heard the same thing you guys heard: ‘He couldn’t throw guys out. He doesn’t receive the ball well.' Bull.”

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Well, he certainly can throw guys out. In the eighth inning, after the Rays' Desmond Jennings(notes) hit his second homer of the game and tightened the score to 4-3, B.J. Upton(notes) walked to bring up Evan Longoria(notes). The Rangers called for a pitchout and Upton conveniently took off. Napoli fired a laser to second. It was a huge out that sucked the juice out of Tropicana Field. Longoria eventually made it to third and Matt Joyce(notes) got to second. The score would have been tied if it wasn’t for that throw.

Napoli had saved the Rangers' bacon at the plate and behind it.

“I just wanted to keep my feet under me and make a good throw,” Napoli said. “Just put the ball on the money.”

Don’t expect more analysis than that because none is needed. Napoli has, at age 29, mastered the art of keeping it simple. Sure, he could be motivated by being traded away from the Angels to Toronto and then back to the AL West within a matter of days – “Maybe he’s got a vendetta,” says Wilson – but really he’s been a hard worker since he was an Angels prospect working the back fields of Diablo Stadium in Tempe, Ariz., with Maddon, then an Angels coach.

“He’s a dirtbag,” said Washington, and that is high praise in this sport. Napoli's teammates absolutely love him, which is pretty nice when he has to manage pitchers he's hit against for years.

“He works well with the pitching staff,” Wilson said. “He’s blue collar. And he might be hitting his prime.”

Welcome to the Year of the Napoli.

There might be more to come.

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