Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Rangers now one win away

The year was 2007. A North Texas franchise long-starved for a championship had just hired a new man to lead players on a team clearly on the uptick to a title. The team was stocked with talent and people thought the new coach's laid-back personality was exactly what the team needed in order to succeed. He would be replacing a man very highly thought of in the sport -- perhaps bigger shoes than he was ready to fill.

But while Wade Phillips never again came close to that 13-3 record in his first year with the Dallas Cowboys after replacing Bill Parcells, the new manager of the Texas Rangers began working with a rag-tag team in financial stress with no foreseeable trophies in the team's future. Who the heck is Ron Washington, and is this guy really going to manage the Rangers to victory when Buck Showalter couldn't? Clearly the new baby-faced GM who has already traded away every usable part the Rangers appeared to have is trying to see if he can make the fan base miss John Hart.

But Jon Daniels, Ron Washington and eventually Nolan Ryan began building something that not even the most die-hard Rangers fan could think would one day be able to play one game for a chance to be World Series Championship. And here we are in late-October of 2011 (forever to be known as the Year of the Napoli), and the Texas Rangers have that opportunity in front of them.

Texas defeated St. Louis on Monday 4-2 in Game 5 of the World Series at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, put the Rangers up 3-2 over the Cardinals with the series returning to Missouri.

Leading the charge for Texas was an offseason pickup whose "dirtbag" style of play might personify exactly what the Rangers are about. Mike Napoli came to Texas for Frank Francisco and a couple bucks back in January, almost to a half-hearted shrug of the fan base. This is someone we'd seen for year with the Angels. He was good, but only because the Rangers weren't. Nevertheless, catcher needed addressing in the offseason with both Benji Molina and Matt Treanor going on their ways, so sure, plug in Napoli with Vorvit Torrealba, and that could work. The Rangers made the World Series last year with what could be considered afterthought backstops. Maybe we can do it again.

The fact of the matter is Texas wouldn't have been anywhere near the Fall Classic, perhaps the postseason, without Mike Napoli. He hit .320 with 30 home runs and 75 RBI and an on-base percentage of .414 over 113 games during the 2011 regular season, and as if he hadn't already "careered" during the 162-haul, he's on his way to making sure thie fairy-tale season ends "Napoli ever after."

With the World Series tied, 2-2, Napoli had as impressive a game as any position player in recent postseason memory. He twice threw out Allen Craig attempting to steal second base with the dangerous Albert Pujols at the plate. Throwing out two baserunners would be impressive enough, but in doing so the first time, he gave his manager the strategic ability to take the bat out of the Pujols' hands and intentionally walk him to the now-open first base. The second time Napoli gunned down Craig, it was to complete the most important double-play in Texas Rangers history, a strike-'em-out-throw-'em-out twin killing that not only bailed out Neftali Felix for plunking the leadoff batter but leaving the Cardinals down to their final out.

That alone would have been enough for a great game by the catcher that Angels manager Mike Scioscia didn't care for. But there's no doubt Napoli's bat is arguably the most important physical ability he brings to the table. With the game tied 2-2 and one out in the bottom of the 8th inning, lefty Mark Rzepczynski allowed a David Murphy single to deflect off his glove to load the bases for Napoli. Due what we have since learned where telephone problems that seemingly could have been solved by the "Can you hear me now?" guy, the Cardinals didn't have the right-handed arm they wanted ready for Napoli. As a result, Rzepczynski faced Napoli, and the Rangers backstop atoned for his near-homerun-turned-fly-out two innings prior. Napoli hammered a 1-1 pitch the right-centerfield gap to score two runs and provide the Rangers margin of victory, leading St. Louis only three outs to work with for any comeback attempt.

Tampa Bay manger Joe Maddon deemed this the "Year of the Napoli" and the echoing chants of NAP-OH-LEE, NAP-OH-LEE at Rangers Ballpark are a reminder for anyone who hasn't recently taken a look at their Chinese food menu.

Naptober is in full swing, and if Texas can close out the series in St. Louis, he is the frontrunner for World Series MVP.

And I'm still not sure how we're talking about the Texas Rangers having a World Series MVP, because that would mean the Rangers are in the World Series. I grew up rooting for the Rangers, and I never thought they'd win a pennant, let alone two in a row and one day be in position to play one game for baseball's ultimate prize.

Here are a few other thoughts on Game 5 that I have to get down on paper (or on Internet):

+ If this was CJ Wilson's last appearance as a Texas Rangers pitcher, then despite all the manufactured animosity that has grown with each postseason loss, realize that he has been a constant for this team over the last two years. Wilson has had a rough postseason -- he hasn't made himself any additional money for his looming free agency -- but he has won 31 games for Texas over the last two seasons since moving into the starting rotation compared to 15 losses. This season, his 2.94 ERA is the lowest by a Rangers pitcher since Nolan Ryan in 1991. If he ends up commanding the type of deal that Cliff Lee was being offered by Texas and New York last offseason, then he might not be worth it, but Texas has never had a consistent home-grown arm like CJ Wilson.

Wilson now has a 1-5 career postseason record with a 4.94 ERA over nine playoff starts. He didn't have the best start by a Rangers pitcher in the World Series -- and unless Colby Lewis tosses a complete game in Game 6, no one will nop Derek Holland's 8 and 1/3 scoreless innings of Game 4 -- but he gave Texas a chance to win, limiting the Cardinals to two runs over 5 and 2/3 innings.

+ Mitch Moreland took his sweet time to get going in the 2011 postseason, but his solo home run off Chris Carpenter to put Texas on the board looked like something Josh Hamilton hit during the 2008 Home Run Derby. The ball was devastated to right field, landing halfway up the porch, 424 feet away. Ron Washington inserted him into the lineup for Game 4 after Mike Napoli's throwing error at first base aided a 5-run inning by St. Louis in Game 3. If not for his home run and subsequent Rangers win, Moreland made a fielding error that could have left Rangers fans kicking themselves for years. It could have cost Texas the series. And while it was not recorded as an error in the official score, don't let that fool you.

While the FOX broadcast team was busy interviewing Derek Holland during the top of the 2nd inning, CJ Wilson was struggling on the mound, walking two batters to begin the inning. With one out and runners on first and second, Yadier Molina singled in a run to left field, and David Murphy misplayed the ball, leading to an extra base for Lance Berkman. At that time, it was 1-0 St. Louis. Skip Schumaker followed by grounding a 2-2 pitch up the first base line to Moreland, who had time to go home with the ball for a run-saving second out. Instead, Moreland couldn't cleanly field the grounder and had to resign himself to stepping on first base to retire Molina who doubled the Cardinals' lead with his RBI-out. While I doubt the play would have ended up in an inning-ending 3-2-3 double play (keep in mind, there was no force at home plate, so Napoli would have had to wait to tag Berkman before throwing back to first), it could have saved a run.

+ Neftali Feliz must get some sort of bonus for suspense with each save he records. As if it's not enough to walk the first batter he faces in too many different big games this year, the fireballer hit the leadoff batter in the top of the 9th inning after getting ahead of him 1-2 in the count. After the strike-'em-out-throw-'em-out double play to retire Albert Pujols, Feliz walked Matt Holiday on nine pitches before finally striking out Berkman to end the game.

This postseason, Feliz has thrown 10 and 1/3 innings, allowing one run on three hits with stress-inducing seven walks and 10 strikeouts. He has saved six games in the 2011 postseason, including all three wins of the ALDS and two games of the World Series. I suppose that end result is what's most important, but the walks (and hit batter) are certainly concerning, if not for the Rangers for my blood pressure.

+ The in-game interview with Derek Holland during the 2nd inning made me cringe at the time. After a win, this concern melts away, but having Joe Buck and Tim McCarver egging on the young lefty while the Rangers fumbled away fielding plays was infuriating at the time. It was as if Holland fiddled while Rome burned to the ground, and if Texas had gone on to lose that game, never overcoming the two runs St. Louis scored in the 2nd inning, that's exactly how it would be perceived this morning. Holland is a goofy, kid, a 25-year-old with undoubtable talent and a need to mature, but I suppose when you darn-near single-handedly win a World Series game like Holland did -- just as Napoli did in Game 5 -- you earn a little leeway. I still think the mustache needs to go.

All right, folks. Texas is one win away. Let's please, please, please get this done. Make this happen, Rangers. There may never be another opportunity like the one in front of this franchise. The team has two games in St. Louis -- albeit under National League rules -- to win one game. And to quote the marketing campaign that worked so well for their Metroplex basketball counterpart, The Time Is Now.

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