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Rangers’ Napoli producing at the best time

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Associated Press
October 26, 2011
— Albert Pujols made the first big dent in this World Series, then it was Mike Napoli’s turn.

Bases loaded, eighth inning, tie game. A ballpark full of fans on their feet, “Nap-Oh-Lee” flashing on the scoreboard, crowd chanting his name.


And boy did he deliver. A booming double that put his Texas Rangers one win from their first championship, a gigantic hit that moved him closer to possibly becoming the Series MVP.


Napoli and the Rangers can close out the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 6 at Busch Stadium on Wednesday night. If they do, the catcher who was traded twice within a week in January will be a central part of the lore.


It happens every fall. Someone steps up—maybe a monster talent like Pujols, perhaps a good player like Napoli given a chance when the stars align. Might even be a fringe guy—Allen Craig for St. Louis this year, Cody Ross for the Giants last year.


A huge swing or two or three, a masterful job on the mound, a sparkling play in the field can do more than win a game. They can create a legacy that lasts forever.


Just ask “Mr. October.”


“It absolutely can define a career,” Reggie Jackson said by telephone this week. “I’m not saying whether that’s right or wrong, but that’s how it happens.”


“What year did Babe Ruth call his shot? 1932? You still see kids out there, calling their shot. That game wasn’t on TV, those kids didn’t see it. But they’ve heard about it, they know about it all these years later.”


Jackson hit a Game 7 home run in a 1973 win, then earned a nickname for life when he homered three times in the Series-clinching victory in 1977.


Suppose he’d done a little less, say, hit three balls off the wall at Yankee Stadium on that signature night. Would he still be “Mr. October?”


“Probably not,” he said.


Already a three-time NL MVP, Pujols put on what many called the greatest hitting show in postseason history when he tied Series records with three home runs, six RBIs and five hits during the Cardinals’ romp in Game 3.


Those are Pujols’ only hits in the Series so far, with Texas often pitching around him or simply issuing intentional walks. Yet if the Cardinals win the championship, chances are his pulverizing performance will be featured in the highlights for years to come.


Not everyone gets the opportunity. Ted Williams slumped in his lone World Series, fellow Hall of Famer Ernie Banks never got close.


Nolan Ryan made 773 starts over 27 seasons, yet his total Series time amounted to a relief appearance of 2 1-3 innings for the champion 1969 Mets. The Rangers president and part-owner understands the October glare.


“Well, I think there’s expectations that the media and the fan base have with certain players,” he said this week. “You can’t judge on a short series about players, but people’s expectations are Albert Pujols is capable of doing what he did the other night, and that adds to his reputation and expectations.”


Texas fans are hoping Josh Hamilton can provide the same sort of shot. The reigning AL MVP went 2 for 20 in last year’s World Series; this time, hobbled by a strained groin, he’s just 3 for 19 without a home run.


For Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter, the franchise leader in postseason wins, it’s not really right how October efforts can frame a player. And that’s coming from an ace who outdueled Roy Halladay 1-0 in the deciding Game 5 of the first-round NL playoffs.


“No, not at all. I don’t think it defines who you are,” he said. “I think what defines who you are is, one, the consistency you put in day in and day out as a professional, and two, how you go about your business on and off the field. That defines who you are.”


“Postseason is just at a different level. I think the guys that are successful maybe might be a little more relaxed and able to deal with the distractions,” he said. “But I don’t think that it should define—if you scuffle in the postseason, it shouldn’t define what type of player you are. That could just be that series.”


Orel Hershiser sees it differently. The former Dodgers star set a major league record by pitching 59 scoreless innings to close the 1988 season, then stamped his greatness by going 3-0 with a 1.05 ERA in the postseason and leading Los Angeles to the title.


“It is fair to judge someone that way because these are the most important games of your life,” Hershiser said at Rangers Ballpark. “That’s the way it is; that’s what October means.”


“When you’re growing up, you’re not with your brother in the backyard pretending it’s the top of the sixth inning and the middle of the season and your team’s in last place. No. You’re dreaming that it’s the bottom of the ninth inning, Game 7 of the World Series,” he said. “You wind up, and here comes the pitch.”



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