DETROIT -- Mike Napoli spent the first 10 years of his professional career in the Angels' organization, establishing his credentials as a hitter and trying to dispel the notion that he's a liability behind the plate. At age 29, he's Exhibit A of the therapeutic effect of a fresh start.
Nelson Cruz broke in with the Mets' organization, drifted to Oakland and then Milwaukee, and earned a reputation as a big-swinging guy whose production might never quite match up with his tools. He's become a very good player from April through September, and Senor Octubre when the fall coats come out and pumpkin-carving season gets under way.
"It's almost like there's Nellie and there's postseason Nellie," Texas outfielder David Murphy said.
Napoli and Cruz, two relatively late bloomers, were a portrait in synchronicity Wednesday. First, they combined on a wondrous defensive play to suck the life out of the Tigers. Then extra innings arrived, and they clubbed Detroit into submission. The net result: a 7-3, 11-inning victory that brought the Rangers one win from a second straight trip to the World Series. All they have to do is beat Justin Verlander on Thursday at Comerica Park or snag a victory this weekend in Arlington.
Michael Young is the acknowledged leader and heartbeat of the Rangers, Josh Hamilton has that superstar glow, C.J. Wilson is destined to make a boatload of money this winter and Adrian Beltre might be the best third baseman in the game, but Napoli and Cruz have earned the undying respect of their teammates with their competitiveness and ability to rise to the occasion. Cruz, in particular, is building a postseason pedigree that's borderline scary.
In Texas' 7-3 victory Monday, Cruz hit an 11th-inning grand slam off Ryan Perry to send everybody home. In Game 4, he hit a three-run shot off Jose Valverde to blow it open in the 11th. With that single, momentous swing, Cruz joined Javy Lopez, Bernie Williams and David Ortiz as one of four players with two career extra-inning homers in the postseason. Among players with at least 75 career postseason at-bats, Cruz's ratio of 8.9 at-bats per home run is fourth best behind Carlos Beltran, Babe Ruth and Troy Glaus. (He has 10 homers in 89 at-bats in the playoffs and World Series).
"Nelson Cruz loves the spotlight," Murphy said. "He loves the clutch [situation]. It's almost a guarantee when he gets up in a big situation that he's going to get a big hit. And when he has a chance to make a big defensive play, he's going to get it done. He's automatic, almost."
Then there's Napoli. He was hitting .221 when he went on the disabled list with a strained oblique muscle June 12. Since his return three weeks later, he has been ridiculously hot at the plate. He hit .383 with a .466 OPS and a .706 slugging percentage after the All-Star break. Unlike most players, he found a way to get better with an oblique injury.
"He carried the whole team for quite a bit of time," Beltre said. "He was terrific for the last two months."
Those words of praise probably don't resonate with Napoli as much as manager Ron Washington's tribute to his game. "Mike Napoli -- I call him a dirt bag, because that's the way he plays," Washington said.
The Tigers are earning all the praise for their feistiness-and-grit quotient, but the Rangers had to survive a long, wet day at the yard to emerge victorious. First, the teams endured a 2-hour, 13-minute rain delay. Then Texas floundered against Detroit starter Rick Porcello and stormed back to take a 3-2 lead, only to watch Alexi Ogando give it back with a home run ball to Brandon Inge in the seventh.
Cruz and Napoli combined on a terrific defensive play to save the game for the Rangers in the eighth inning. With Miguel Cabrera on third base and Victor Martinez on first, Delmon Young lofted a fly ball to medium right field. Cruz caught it near the foul line and unleashed a one-hop throw to nail Cabrera at the plate. Even though Cabrera was running with all the momentum of an 18-wheeler going uphill, he does weigh 270 pounds or thereabouts, so Napoli wasn't exactly in an enviable position.
"I know in that situation there's probably going to be a collision at the plate or it's going to be a close play," Napoli said. "Crucial time of the game. Nellie gave me a good throw, and he gave me enough time to where I could brace and get low. It was just a great play."
Napoli made another huge play in the 10th when he nailed Jackson on an attempted steal, and his jubilant reaction told you everything you need to know about his priorities. There was an ongoing sense in Anaheim that he lacked the attributes Angels manager Mike Scioscia values in a catcher, and he was always going to be regarded as a hitter first and foremost. The Angels packed Napoli off to Toronto in a trade for outfielder Vernon Wells this past January, and Napoli was a Blue Jay for all of four days before Texas GM Jon Daniels acquired him for reliever Frank Francisco.
Napoli has been anything but a defensive liability in Texas. The Rangers were 42-15 this season in games he started at catcher. Napoli threw out a respectable 10 of 31 base stealers, and the Rangers' staff posted an impressive 3.16 ERA with him behind the plate. It was telling Wednesday night when Washington played both his catchers against Detroit but chose to use Yorvit Torrealba at designated hitter and have Napoli catch lefty Matt Harrison.
"I have no idea where that came from," Young said of Napoli's reputation as a substandard defensive catcher. "That was just a really unfair rap. Sometimes in this game, guys get labels and they stick with them their whole careers. Nap got stuck with that label for whatever reason, and he didn't deserve it. I know he takes a lot of pride in it. As incredible as his season was offensively, he's meant more to us defensively."
As the game dragged on, Napoli and Cruz found an opening to showcase their other skills. Hamilton doubled off Valverde to lead off the 11th, and Detroit manager Jim Leyland chose to intentionally walk Beltre to face Napoli with one out. Although Beltre was a career 3-for-6 with a home run against Valverde, it was a calculated risk in light of how productive Napoli has been this season. And it didn't work. After lining a single to right-center field to score Hamilton and make it 4-3, Napoli had another opportunity to pump his fist in triumph.
The scary thing is, when Napoli and Cruz report to the ballpark Thursday, they'll most likely be hitting No. 6 and No. 7 in the batting order again. It takes a lot to stand out in the crowd with the Rangers. But when the reward is another trip to the World Series, it's a tradeoff they'll gladly take.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.