Notes: Napoli gets nod behind plate

Angels notes: Napoli gets nod behind plate

BOSTON -- Mike Napoli was manager Mike Scioscia's choice to start behind the plate and call John Lackey's pitches in Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Red Sox at Fenway Park.

That makes Jeff Mathis, the man who handled the bulk of the catching in the second half and had much to do with the Angels reaching the postseason, in ready reserve, a backup to best buddy Napoli.

Both Mikes, player and manager, were hoping Napoli found something that had been missing in the final game of the regular season, when he homered and singled against Chad Gaudin in Oakland, ending a 1-for-14 dry spell.

"Getting my first hit [in the fourth inning, prior to his seventh-inning homer] was big for me," Napoli said. "I was kind of struggling a little bit. To do something like that, drive that ball [to right-center for the homer], gave me confidence it's still there."

This is only his 15th start since July 1, when Napoli homered in Baltimore and made a game-saving tag at home on a throw from Vladimir Guerrero in the bottom of the ninth inning.

It was, in some respects, the last hurrah for Napoli. His season was harshly interrupted on that final out, when Melvin Mora caught him high in the left ankle with a slide, creating a deep bone bruise in the shin. Missing 19 days, Napoli came back for a spell and went down again a week later, on July 27. This time it was a slide into second base that brought pain to his right hamstring that remained with Napoli right on through the balance of the season.

"I'm going hard, but not full-out hard," Napoli said, making a necessary concession to the hamstring. "I wasn't out there for a while, and when I came back, it was almost like I had to start all over."

It's been that kind of season for the Angels, who have lost everybody in their lineup except shortstop Orlando Cabrera and right fielder Guerrero for at least one stretch of games. Even Guerrero hasn't been healthy, an inflamed right triceps limiting him to DH duty since Sept. 6.

When the Angels dealt veteran Jose Molina to the Yankees a week after the All-Star break, they were leaving the most important position on the field to sophomore Napoli, 25, and rookie Mathis, 24. The gamble was magnified when Napoli sustained his hamstring strain, putting the onus on Mathis to deliver.

"You've got two young guys to show how they're going to handle a pitching staff," Napoli said. "[Mathis] came in and was awesome, getting wins, pulling it down. He's picked off guys at first in key situations. His defense has been amazing."

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Yet Mathis tailed off with the bat down the stretch, a 1-for-27 finish slicing his average from .243 to .211. He was hitless in his last 12 at-bats. Napoli finished with a .247 average, with .443 slugging and .351 on-base marks superior to those of Mathis (.351 and .276 respectively).

"Napoli and Mathis both carried a load for us this season behind the plate," Scioscia said. "They've done a terrific job on the defensive end. There are some tendencies with individual pitchers that are pretty close; some might steer you in a different direction.

"Mike's going to play tonight because he has not only a good understanding with John Lackey, [but] I think that his ability to bring a game plan into a game is very important in the playoffs. [With] Mathis, we feel comfortable doing it as well. But Mike has a little more experience."

The Angels' pitchers compiled a 4.28 ERA in Napoli's 598 2/3 innings behind the plate, compared to 3.89 in Mathis' 467 innings. Lackey appears to have no preference -- he had a 2.87 in 78 1/3 innings with Mathis, compared to 2.89 in 124 2/3 innings with Napoli.

Experience counts: He's only 25 years old, but Francisco Rodriguez must seem older to fans. He's been around for five years, since bursting on the scene in the 2002 postseason with an electric performance that helped the Angels win it all.

This is his fourth trip to the postseason in six years, and even K-Rod is a little amazed by what he's done by age 25.

"I've been part of big games since '02," the man from Caracas, Venezuela, said. "I'm 25 years old, and I feel like I've been in the big leagues 10 years, all the big games I've been in. There's a lot of pressure this time of year. It's not easy."

Rodriguez hasn't been content with his control at various stages of the season, but October means locking into a no-margin-for-error mind-set.

"This time of year," he said, "it's no time to make mistakes. You have to be ready. As pitchers, you take one pitch at a time, step by step, instead of trying to be too aggressive. That's when mistakes come out."

K-Rod is thankful for one thing -- he doesn't have to face his buddies, the Angels.

"That's the advantage we have, with our lineup," he said of the club's slash-and-dash attack. "They're going to have that pressure on them from the first inning to the ninth inning."

Willits saga continues: The Oklahoma kid, Reggie Willits, played and accomplished much more in his rookie season than he ever imagined: 136 games, 430 at-bats, league-high 4.4 pitches per at-bat, 27 steals, 20 doubles. His .293 batting average and .391 on-base percentage were franchise records for rookies.

All of that, along with dependable defense, led to Willits getting the starting in center field for injured Gary Matthews Jr. in Game 1. Willits played one highly challenging game in center behind Lackey at Fenway, battling winds in pursuit of long drives in August.

"It's not an easy outfield to play," Scioscia said. "There are angles in left field, and you have that triangle in right-center. There's a lot of area to cover, and you really have to pay attention to the flags. The ball will carry or get knocked down. Just watch those flags on top of the stadium; they don't lie. Reggie will have to be in tune with that.

"I think it's beneficial any time you get a little experience on the field. It has to give you a better look next time. Hopefully, Reggie will be comfortable out there."

Fellow rookie Nathan Haynes, Chone Figgins and the veteran Garret Anderson are other options in center with Matthews sidelined.

Izturis in No. 5 spot: A backup infielder when the season began, Maicer Izturis, like Willits, has been invaluable in close to full-time duty moving between second and third for Howard Kendrick and Figgins.

Izturis finished with a .289 average in 102 games, committing just four errors. His ability to make contact and respond in clutch situations had the 5-foot-8 Venezuelan batting fifth against Josh Beckett, between Anderson and Casey Kotchman.

"He's not a stereotypical No. 5 hitter, but, with Beckett, Izzy gives us a different look," said Scioscia, who has marveled at Izturis' ability to advance and plate baserunners. "Plus, [as a switch-hitter] he breaks up the lefties."

Izturis led the club with a .406 average in 96 at-bats with runners in scoring position, and that was no fluke. His career average in those situations is .340 in 241 opportunities.

Anderson ready: An infection has caused some swelling and closing of his right eye, but Anderson said he was ready to go.

"If I can see," the sweet-swinging cleanup man said, "I can play. I'm not crazy about it, but I'm all right to play."

Anderson would like to approach his performance in his 2002 introduction to ALDS play. A driving force in the Angels' conquest of the Yankees, Anderson batted .389 with a homer and four RBIs in the four games, slugging .667.

In 29 career postseason games, Anderson is a .279 hitter with five homers and 22 RBIs, slugging .437.

Up next: Idle on Thursday, the Angels will match Kelvim Escobar (18-7, 3.40) against Daisuke Matsuzaka (15-12, 4.40) in a duel of stylish right-handers with multiple pitches in Game 2 on Friday night at 5:37 p.m. PT.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.