(ARLINGTON, Texas) – The Texas Rangers, who shut out the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday night, 4-0, to even the World Series at 2-2, should win it all this year. If they don’t, their fans will have every right to be irate.
Why? Just look at the depth of their lineup. If you’re a casual fan, you probably don’t know much, if anything, about Mike Napoli, who catches and plays first base for Texas. Well, know this: during the 2011 regular season, among players with 400 or more plate appearances, Napoli’s combined on-base percentage (.414) and slugging percentage (.631) was second best in the major league, behind only Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays, a candidate to win the American League MVP Award. How important a stat is on-base-plus-slugging, or OPS, in today’s game? Well, it’s currently starring alongside Brad Pitt in Moneyball, the baseball-analytics movie (based on the Michael Lewis book that looked at Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics) that has grossed over $63.7 million at the box office.
Napoli, who hit 30 home runs in 113 games this season — he missed almost a month in June and early July with a strained left oblique muscle — also slugged a homer every 12.3 at bats, again second to Bautista among players with at least 400 plate appearances. According to these metrics, Napoli was one of the top two or three hitters in the game this season.
And on Sunday, Napoli hit eighth for the Rangers. That’s right. One of the best hitters in the game, statistically, hit second to last in the order. Napoli doesn’t usually hit eighth. Texas manager Ron Washington was trying to mix up his lefties and righties in the order, so he dropped Napoli down a spot. Napoli usually hits sixth or seventh. In other words, on any given day, one of the game’s most productive players still hits in the bottom of the Rangers’ batting order. “We don’t count on one person,” says Napoli. “If a guy doesn’t get a pitch to hit, he can just pass it along to the next guy.”
Texas is a complete team, and it gave a flawless performance in Game 4. Starting pitcher Derek Holland, a goofball who takes great pride in his flimsy pornstache, gave up only two hits over 8 1/3 innings in the shutout, before giving way to Neftali Feliz, who closed it out. And in the bottom of the sixth, with Texas holding on to a 1-0 lead, Napoli knocked the genius out of St. Louis manager Tony La Russa.
Going into that inning, Cardinals starter Edwin Jackson had given up only three hits. However, he surrendered back-to-back one-out walks, his sixth and seventh issued in the game. La Russa lifted Jackson for reliever Mitchell Boggs, who would face Napoli. La Russa’s incessant pitching changes can be irritating. But they’ve mostly paid off this postseason. Plus, Jackson was hot — he hadn’t walked more than one batter in each of his three prior postseason starts.
On Sunday, however, La Russa’s bullpen call backfired. On Boggs’ first pitch, Napoli crushed a high fastball 392 ft. into the left-field seats. It was a no doubter. Previously, the 51,539 Rangers fans had sang along to “Deep in the Heart of Texas” in the fifth inning and cheered a footrace between dotted mascots that looked like aspirin before the sixth inning. But the crowd lacked buzz. After Napoli’s shot in the sixth, Rangers Ballpark went berserk. “Nap-o-li!” “Nap-o-li!” the fans chanted. The frenzy lasted the rest of the game. “That’s the loudest I ever heard it,” says Holland. “And it made my arm hair stick up. It gave me a crazy, tingly feeling.”
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The home run was even more surprising since Napoli rarely pounces on the first pitch. “I like to see a lot of pitches,” Napoli said in the Rangers’ locker room afterward. “But when you’ve got a runner in scoring position, sometimes you want to be aggressive.” He was wearing a “Dirt Bag” T-shirt, which Napoli said a friend had sent him after Washington called him a dirtbag, in the best sense of the word, a few weeks ago. Napoli figures the name derives from his habit of getting his uniform dirty in order to win, though he’s not entirely sure.
Napoli feasted on high fastballs all season. He knew that Boggs, a sinker-ball specialist, would try to keep the ball low in order to make Napoli ground into an inning-ending double play. So Napoli’s mind-set was simple: If he misses high, I’m going to take advantage. “I used to run up to those high pitches all the time, and swing and miss,” Napoli says. “Now I stay shorter on my swing. So I’m trying to see it up, and I saw it up.”
And while catching Holland, 25, on Sunday, Napoli also helped the young pitcher control his emotions, which Holland admits have hurt him in prior postseason starts. “You probably saw a couple of times tonight he was telling me to square up,” says Holland of his battery mate. “Especially in between innings, there was a couple of times I’d throw the ball and I wasn’t throwing it right where I wanted to. So he was keeping me in check, basically.”
Holland had a few psychologists prepping him on Sunday. Before the game, Washington gave Holland a rah-rah pep talk in the dugout. He even smacked Holland in the face for good measure. “It’s just one of those things,” Holland says. “You let it go.” After the game, what looked like a miniature swashbuckler’s sword sat on Holland’s locker. Holland said a clubhouse attendant had given him the metaphorical gift: after all, Holland was going into battle. “It’s definitely not a knife,” Holland said while brandishing the letter opener. “I promise you, it’s not sharp enough.”
Holland’s edge sets up an epic Game 5 on Monday night, including a rematch between two aces, Chris Carpenter of St. Louis and C.J. Wilson of Texas. Carpenter and the Cards won Game 1 of the series, 3-2, in St. Louis. The winner goes back to St. Louis just one win away from a World Series. “If you want to choose somebody from the St. Louis Cardinals to pitch that game, it’s Chris,” says La Russa. “His problem is going to be good hitters.”
Hitters like Mike Napoli. At the bottom of the lineup. Advantage: Texas.