ARLINGTON (AP) – Adrian Beltre most likely wouldn’t have been around to hit three home runs in the AL division series-clinching victory for Texas had Cliff Lee agreed to a big contract and stayed with the Rangers last winter.
Beltre’s big bat and slick fielding and a breakout season by catcher-first baseman Mike Napoli, the other key offseason addition, certainly helped the Rangers get over losing the ace left-hander after their first World Series. And get them into the AL championship series for the second year in a row, this time against Detroit.
“They fit right in from the first day they walked in the clubhouse,” manager Ron Washington said.
Lee won the opener and clinching Game 5 of the AL division series at Tampa Bay last season. The Rangers won the rematch against the Rays in four games this year with big contributions from Beltre and Napoli.
The three-homer game by Beltre, only the seventh time a player did that in the postseason, came in a 4-3 victory in Game 4. That came after Napoli had a nine-pitch at-bat that resulted in a tying two-run single in Game 2 and hit the go-ahead homer in Game 3, prompting Rays manager Joe Maddon to declare it “The Year of the Napoli.”
“You get to see what they can do on the field and the impact they make that way,” Ian Kinsler said Thursday before the team’s workout at Rangers Ballpark. “They also make a huge impact in the locker room, in the dugout and they’re just great guys to have around. They fit in perfect with this team. They made it better.”
The Rangers will be at home for Game 1 of the AL champoinship series Saturday night against the Tigers, who wrapped up the other AL division series with a 3-2 win at New York on Thursday night. Texas beat the Yankees in last year’s ALCS.
It wasn’t until after Lee turned down a $138 million, six-year offer from the Rangers to return to Philadelphia that free agent Beltre was signed by Texas, though general manager Jon Daniels said there was a point last winter the team was thinking about getting both players.
Daniels knows that could have been a huge stretch financially. But once Lee signed with the Phillies, and the Rangers decided to stick to internal candidates to fill out the rotation, the focus turned to All-Star and two-time Gold Glove-winning third baseman Beltre.
“We still wanted to improved our pitching, and we felt the best way to do that was to improve our defense,” Daniels said. “Adrian was really a perfect guy in that, not to mention that we had struggled against left-handed pitching at times. Adding him and adding Mike to the middle of the order was a big deal.”
Beltre, who spent last season in Boston, signed an $80 million, five-year deal with Texas that includes an expected sixth year for another $16 million. He chose the Rangers over the AL West rival Los Angeles Angels.
The Rangers then traded for Napoli, who after spending his first five major league seasons with the Angels, had been dealt to Toronto only four days before Texas got him.
“I’ve always played against them, you could see that they always had fun, but I didn’t really know what to expect coming over to a division rival,” Napoli said. “So when I got here, it was a little weird. But from day one, it was good. They accepted me pretty well and talking to everybody and getting to know them, I’ve got a lot of good friends on this team now.”
Napoli set career highs by hitting .320 with 30 homers and 75 RBIs in 113 games. Beltre hit .296 with 32 homers and 105 RBIs despite missing 37 games before September with a left hamstring strain.
“I’d like to see (Beltre) healthy for the full year,” said Josh Hamilton, last year’s AL MVP. “You can’t ask any more than what these guys have given us. They have given us big hits at big times and come through and carried us at times. So it says a lot about them as players and the character and the determination they have to not only fit into the team, but help produce and help us get to where our ultimate goal is, which is the World Series.”
Beltre previously said over and over that Texas was one of “two or three” teams on his list last winter and that he felt Texas gave him the best chance for a World Series ring.
Beltre was only 19 years old when he made his major league debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1999. His only playoff appearance before this year came in the NL division series for the Dodgers against St. Louis in 2004.
“The postseason, that’s where you want to be,” Beltre said after the Tampa series. “Especially for me it has been over, what, a seven-year stretch, but I am here and we wanted to finish what we start.”
Don Welke, one of Daniels’ key advisers, was with the Dodgers when Beltre was there and felt that the chance to win would be huge for the third baseman coming off his first All-Star season.
“He knew the makeup really well, knew the person really well and I remember one thing Don kept saying, he went to the playoffs once in ’04, but he’s never truly won,” Daniels said. “He felt like that would be a big driving force for him, an internal motivator where he didn’t have to be pushed from the outside. And that kind of checked out with everybody else we talked to, this was a guy that was really driven to win.”
Napoli was involved in a bone-jarring home plate collision in Tuesday’s game at Tampa. He said he sore but OK and ready to go for the AL championship series.
When asked if Maddon was right declaring “The Year of the Napoli,” the catcher simply responded, “I don’t know, it’s not over yet.”
(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)