1. "This is the Year of the Napoli, man," quipped Joe Maddon, offering his latest quotable in the immediate aftermath of what Ron Washington and Nolan Ryan and you and me consider one of the most tense, intense baseball games we've ever been invested in.
Wash was out of superlatives for Napoli, a man seemingly on a mission to carry this club offensively while doing everything you need your catcher to do behind the plate. He called Napoli a "dirtbag," and a "baseball player," terms of unequivocal endearment in this game, and commended Jon Daniels and the Rangers' scouts for going out and getting their man this winter, after years of trying without any real chance of success to pry him free from the Angels. Michael Young said after Texas 4, Tampa Bay 3 that Napoli is "one of the best players in baseball right now," and Napoli, upon having the comment relayed to him, smiled. "It means a lot coming from Michael," said Napoli. "But I've still got things to work on to get better."
Hard to imagine what he could have done better on Monday. He was on the catching end of a brilliant Colby Lewis start. He singled, he homered, he walked, he stole a base. He executed a pitchout perfectly in a massive spot, he smothered an eighth-inning strike three in the dirt that could have tied the game had it squirted away. He had the confidence in Neftali Feliz's breaking ball to give Feliz confidence in it, and went to it, a lot. He saw more pitches per at-bat (21 in four trips) than anyone on the team.
Both of Napoli's hits, naturally, came with two strikes. He hit .291 with two strikes this season, second best in baseball, after hitting .149 in those situations in 2010. His two-strike slug was .509 this year and his OPS was .887, both tops in the big leagues.
After the sixth pitch in his seventh-inning battle with David Price -- foul (slider), swinging strike (changeup), foul (changeup), foul (slider), ball (fastball), ball (changeup) -- Rays catcher John Jaso trotted out to the mound. Adrian Beltre had singled on the inning's first pitch, and Price was nursing a 1-0 lead when Napoli spoiled those two 0-2 offerings and then let two pitches go outside of the zone.
As Jaso met Price on the hill, I wondered whether Napoli, the catcher, was trying to think along with the Rays battery. What's Jaso telling Price? What would I be telling Price? He's not going to want to run the count full, he's coming at me, but with what? What's Jaso and Price's game plan here?
Jaso trotted back to the plate, settled into his crouch, flashed the signs.
Rock, fire. Fastball.
Napoli ever after.
2. Lewis is now 4-0, 1.67 in five post-season starts, all in the last two years. But raise your hand if, a couple weeks ago, you thought you'd be coming off a Lewis playoff start dying for the Rangers to advance so they could get the ball to him again.
One hit over six innings -- none of which came from the six left-handed hitters in the Rays lineup. Two walks and six strikeouts, in close keeping with his career post-season strikeout and walk rates. Slider command that allowed him to spot a fastball that didn't always scratch 90 and to succeed with it.
3. This is the first career post-season not only for Mike Adams and Koji Uehara, but for veteran late man Mike Gonzalez, too. His three-pitch sequence to Johnny Damon in a huge spot in the eighth (4-3 Texas, men on first and second, one out) -- strike looking (four-seamer), strike swinging (slider), strike swinging (four-seamer) -- lasted all of a minute or two, but his place in Rangers history is secure.
Pedro Strop, have a great career in Baltimore. Save a thousand games. It was worth it.
4. How do you throw Josh Hamilton a strike in that spot in the seventh? After the Beltre single and Napoli homer, Price got two quick groundouts and gave up a Craig Gentry single, ending his day. Middle reliever Brandon Gomes, so good earlier in the series, couldn't locate and issued two walks. In came lefthander J.P. Howell with the bases full.
First pitch slider outside the zone. Hamilton waved at it with a give-up cut. Got to throw the same pitch, right, or at least waste a fastball up and in?
Another slider, this one inexplicably fat, and Hamilton stroked a single to right, turning Texas 2, Tampa Bay 1 into Texas 4, Tampa Bay 1, obviously one of the more massive moments in a game full of them.
5. They typically usher the managers and two players from the winning team into the media interview room for the televised postgame Q&A sessions, but if there were a third player last night, my vote would have gone to Gentry. What a game. Two singles and a walk from the nine hole against one of the best pitchers in baseball, causing a distraction every time he got on base, with the big bats coming up.
Getting picked off of first sucked some life out of the start of the game, but he later stole two bases, and I'm pretty sure he's still never been caught in the big leagues (outside of the pickoff). His job is to reach base any way he can and create havoc. He did that last night.
6. What a player Desmond Jennings is going to be. The comparisons to Carl Crawford are going to last for a while, since the Rays allowed Crawford to move on (they had little choice) for a landmark contract with Jennings having been groomed to fill his spot.
After Price had thrown 11 pitches in the top of the first inning, Jennings led off the bottom of the frame by working a 10-pitch at-bat himself, ending it with a groundout to shortstop. He saw seven Lewis fastballs and three sliders. The next pitch he saw was three innings later, a fastball he deposited into the left field seats. In the eighth, he saw four Adams sliders and a fastball before crushing a fifth slider for another home run, pulling the Rays to within a run.
7. Loved seeing Nelson Cruz's final at-bat. Absolutely squared up on a Juan Cruz fastball in the eighth, scream-lining out to shortstop to end the inning and his night at 0-4. Great pass at the ball. Hoping today's the day for the Cruz breakout.
8. Matt Harrison talked yesterday about how much it killed him to watch highlights over the winter of last year's post-season run, how it made him realize how much he hated not being able to go to war with his teammates. He said it was then that he picked up the books that everyone's heard about ("The Mental ABC's of Baseball" and "The Tao of Sports") and that had been gathering dust on his couchside table for a year. Said it opened his eyes to the mental side of the game, taught him to focus at-bat to at-bat, helped him step up his game.
He said yesterday, confidently, that he's ready for today. He said it believably.
9. Joe Maddon noted before yesterday's game, with Jeremy Hellickson set to pitch Game Four, that it would be pretty remarkable for his club to have the chance for a rookie starting pitcher to win both the first game and the last game of this series.
After what Colby Lewis and Mike Napoli and their teammates did in Game Three, we can change that Maddon verb from "win" to "pitch."
After the intensity of Game Three, I'm not sure I can take another one like that in Game Four, but I'm absolutely ready to find out if I can.