ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) - From part-time starter earlier in his career to an important cog on a team trying to get back to the World Series, Texas catcher Mike Napoli is having quite a season.
The offseason acquisition helped the Rangers take a 2-1 lead in their AL division series Monday night, going 2 for 3 with a go-ahead homer, throwing out a runner and even stealing a base in a 4-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays.
The defending AL champions will try to wrap up the best-of-five matchup Thursday at Tropicana Field, sending left-hander Matt Harrison to the mound against rookie Jeremy Hellickson.
The Rangers have won four consecutive ALDS road games - all against the Rays. A fifth will put them in the AL championship series for the second straight year.
Napoli, who batted .320 with 30 homers and 75 RBIs in 113 games during the regular season, is one of the reasons they like their chances of reaching the World Series again.
"He's gotten so many big hits for us this year, you just would shudder to think where we'd be without him," Rangers CEO and president Nolan Ryan said.
"I feel good at the plate," added Napoli, who's done plenty of damage against the Rays since joining Texas after being traded twice within five days in January. "I'm glad I can contribute and help us win."
Napoli singled and stole a base in the second. He hit a two-run homer off All-Star David Price for a 2-1 lead in the seventh, then threw out B.J. Upton trying to steal second to help a shaky bullpen thwart Tampa Bay's bid to overcome a three-run hole over the final three innings.
Texas manager Ron Washington is tickled to have the former Los Angeles Angel, who spent less than a week on Toronto's roster before landing with the Rangers.
Rays manager Joe Maddon, who's known Napoli since the 29-year-old was a minor leaguer in the Angels system, proclaimed this to be "the year of the Napoli."
"He is just hot," said Maddon, who watched Napoli go 9 for 20 with three homers and seven RBI's in five games at Tropicana Field this season. "And he got a pitch."
Washington said the catcher has been "very special for us."
"I think it has a lot to do with the atmosphere that he's in. It has a lot to do with the work ethic that he brings," Washington said. "He's a dirt bag. He is a baseball player. He really is. We always knew he had power, we always knew he had on-base percentage, and this year he put it together as far as average-wise goes."
The Rangers went 42-15 in his 57 starts at catcher, and Napoli set career highs for homers, runs, RBIs, total bases, walks and doubles.
Told that Texas designated hitter Michael Young recently described him as one of the best players in baseball right now, Napoli said the comment meant a lot.
"I work hard every day. ... I'm trying to get better every day," he said. "So just hearing that from him is nice."
Playing in front of the first sellout at home since opening day and hoping to recapture the magic of clinching the AL wild card in the regular-season finale, Tampa Bay got a pair of solo home runs from rookie Desmond Jennings.
The Rays kept it interesting by scoring twice off Rangers relievers before Neftali Feliz got four outs for his second save of the series.
Texas third baseman Adrian Beltre, playing deep and guarding the line to prevent a double in the ninth, started an around-the-horn double play on Kelly Shoppach's grounder to end it.
"It was three of the toughest innings that we experienced all year. ... I am just so happy we were able to get the 27th out," Washington said of the late-game drama.
Lately, opponents have found that difficult to do against Tampa Bay.
"Believe me, this thing is not over," Maddon said. "You have seen what we have done over the past month."
The Rays made up a nine-game deficit on Boston in the wild-card standings after Sept. 3 and claimed their third postseason berth in four years by overcoming a seven-run deficit to beat the Yankees and edge the Red Sox for the playoff spot on Evan Longoria's dramatic homer last Wednesday in the 12th inning.
And just as Tampa Bay rallied to stay in the game Monday night, Maddon expects his team to bounce back again in Game 4.
"We'll get back out there ... win that game, take it back to Texas," Maddon added. "I talked in the beginning of the season of doing it in another way. We're set up for it."
Price lost twice to Cliff Lee and the Rangers in the 2010 ALDS and welcomed the opportunity to try to redeem himself against the only AL opponent he's yet to beat in his career.
The left-hander shrugged off a poor outing in his last regular-season start to take a 1-0 lead into the seventh, thanks to Jennings' fourth-inning homer off Lewis.
Beltre singled leading off the seventh against Price and took second on a wild pitch. The crowd of 32,828 fell silent when Napoli lifted a 2-2 pitch into the seats in left-center for a 2-1 advantage. Josh Hamilton extended the lead with a two-run single off reliever J.P. Howell.
As good as Price was early, the Rangers' Colby Lewis was better in limiting the Rays to one hit over six innings to improve to 4-0 in five career postseason starts.
Jennings' first homer was the only hit off the right-hander, who had worked 16 consecutive scoreless innings against the Rays up to that point - a stretch that began with a five-inning stint in last year's ALDS. He followed that with an eight-inning performance to beat Price and the Rays on June 1.
But the Rangers' bullpen nearly let a three-run lead slip away.
Johnny Damon, Ben Zobrist and Casey Kotchman singled to load the bases against reliever Darren Oliver in the seventh. Damon scored when pinch-hitter Sean Rodriguez grounded out, and the Rangers escaped further damage when the second pitcher of the inning, Alexi Ogando, induced pinch-hitter Sam Fuld to hit a roller to second base.
The Rays weren't finished. Jennings led off the eighth with his second homer, trimming Texas' lead to 4-3. Mike Adams walked Upton, who was caught stealing, and then walked Longoria and Matt Joyce to get himself into trouble again.
The Rangers wiggled off the hook when Michael Gonzales struck out Damon, and Feliz came on to fan Zobrist with the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position.
The Texas closer got Zobrist on a check-swing on an 82 mph curve, one pitch after the Rays hitter fouled off a 100 mph fastball.
"We never feel like we're out of a game, especially this close. We feel we always have a chance until the last out is made," Jennings said.
Indeed, the Rays had the Rangers riding an emotional roller coaster the last three innings.
"I was a nervous wreck," a relieved Ryan said. "That's probably as stressful a game as I've sat through."