ARLINGTON – The chants started in the fourth inning as Rangers catcher Mike Napoli came to the plate with the bases loaded and a two-run deficit.
“Na-Po-Li, Na-Po-Li, Na-Po-Li,” the crowd of 51,351 yelled in unison.
It was a new cheer for the fans. And a new one for the player.
“That’s probably the first time [I’ve had a crowd chanting my name,]” Napoli said. “It was pretty loud, too. When I heard it, I was like, ‘You guys can’t do this to me right now.’”
But it was the catcher’s moment. He fouled off pitch after pitch for a nine-pitch at bat before he fired a line drive to left field and brought in two runs to tie the game.
“It has been incredible what this guy has been able to do, this porterhouse over here,” said second baseman Ian Kinsler, referring to Napoli. “You know, they’re screaming ‘Napoli’ there in that big at-bat he had with the bases loaded … I get the chills and I don’t know how he is up there staying focused.”
It has been Napoli’s year. The 29-year-old catcher had previously had a season-high batting average of .273. In 2011, he hit .320 with career highs in hits, runs, doubles, home runs and RBIs. That while striking out 52 fewer times than his previous career high.
And he’s done that while playing in 27 fewer games than he did as an Angel in 2010.
“That’s just Napoli being Napoli,” said Texas starter Derek Holland.
No, it isn’t. At least, not as far as career statistics and Tampa Bay Manager Joe Maddon are concerned.
“Nap’s really come on this year,” Maddon said. “I’ve known him for a long time and he has made a lot of nice adjustments this year as a hitter … He’s always had that kind of power, but now he is able to drive in runs with singles, [and] opposite-field kind of hits that he did not do in the past.”
Napoli credited working with Rangers hitting coaches Scott Coolbaugh and Johnny Narron, who have helped the catcher with his two-strike approach. Maddon mentioned the changes Napoli has made when swinging on his last strike as well, in his postgame press conference.
Napoli’s defensive reputation has improved, too.
After the Rangers pushed ahead by two runs in the fourth, B.J. Upton led off the fifth with a double. The Rays were in good shape to at least cut the lead in half – that is, until Napoli threw out Upton at third to clear the bags.
“I take pride in defense,” Napoli said. “I kind of got labeled as not such a good catcher, and I always thought that I was a good catcher. So to show it means a lot.”
Napoli finished the game 2-for-4 with two runs and two RBI. And one chant he won’t soon forget.
Washington on the Rangers’ breakout fourth inning: “After the second inning ended, in the third I thought we were beginning to handle them a little better. We started making [Rays starter James Shields] get the ball up, quit chasing the change-up in the dirt and come in the zone. And he got erratic and he hit a couple of guys and we put some stuff together.”
Rangers starter Derek Holland on his performance (5 IP, 6 hits, 3 runs (1 earned), 2 walks and 2 strikeouts): “I feel overall, I battled. I did the best I could. I was trying to do everything to keep the damage down to a minimum, I made pitches for the most part when I needed to – there were just a couple plays, [my] error ate me up and that walk [that brought in a run] were the only things.”
Washington on electing to bring in reliever Koji Uehara instead of sticking with Alexi Ogando in the seventh inning: “Well, you know, [Ogando] has [relieved] before and he was very good at it. But when we traded for Mike Adams and Uehara, we traded them for those situations. Uehara just didn’t get the job done tonight.”
Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler on needing to get at least a split in Tampa Bay: “It will be tough on us. Obviously, we’re pretty happy we were able to split after losing the first one. [We] get a good day off [Sunday.] But it’s going to be tough on us. We just need to come out and make sure our bats stay hot going into the two games in Tampa.”