- Associated Press - Saturday, October 29, 2011

ST. LOUIS (AP) - The Texas Rangers were one strike away from a championship _ twice _ and Mike Napoli was oh-so-close to being the likely MVP of the World Series.

But the bullpen’s collapse in Game 6 forced the first winner-take-all game since 2002, and the St. Louis Cardinals spoiled Napoli’s unforgettable series with a 6-2 victory Friday night.

Bounced from the Angels to the Blue Jays before ending up in Texas, Napoli put together an October to remember. The catcher hit a pair of homers and drove in 10 runs while making several key defensive plays that took the Rangers to the brink of a fairy-tale finish.

It simply wasn’t meant to be.

Napoli did just about everything he could.

The slugging catcher had the tiebreaking two-run double that gave Texas a 4-2 victory in Game 5 on Monday night, and had an RBI single and three walks in Game 6.

It wasn’t just his bat, though. Napoli also threw out two runners at second base in Game 5, and picked off Matt Holliday at third with the bases loaded in the sixth inning of Game 6.

Napoli added one more hit for posterity in Game 7.

“You study all year long, get straight A’s and then you have to pass the one test to pass the course. We didn’t pass each time,” Rangers pitcher Colby Lewis said long after it was over. “It doesn’t show how good this team really is.”

With perhaps the best World Series by a catcher since 1976, when the Reds’ Johnny Bench hit .553 for the “Big Red Machine” in a sweep of the Yankees, Napoli joined some elite company.

The only other player to have four multi-RBI games in a World Series is Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle, who accomplished the feat in 1960. Mantle (12) and fellow Yankees great Bobby Richardson (11) _ the MVP of the ‘60 Fall Classic _ are the only players with more RBIs in a single World Series.

Napoli’s charmed postseason run was an extension of a magical second half.

Given regular playing time after the All-Star break following a hamstring injury to Adrian Beltre, Napoli hit .355 with 15 homers and 36 RBIs in August and September.

The fact that Napoli made history for AL West rival Texas certainly won’t sit well with the Los Angeles Angels, where he spent his first five big league seasons.

The Angels traded Napoli with outfielder Juan Rivera to Toronto for outfielder Vernon Wells last winter. The Blue Jays promptly flipped Napoli to Texas for reliever Frank Francisco, a move that made Rangers general manager Jon Daniels look more like a genius with each passing day.

“I’d like to say we knew that everything was going to work out this way,” Daniels said before the start of Game 6. “You’ve got to give him a lot of credit, though, because he came in with a mindset, he came in tremendous shape into spring training. I think he had something to prove.”

Rangers fans took such a liking to him that chants of “Na-po-li! Na-po-li!” formed the soundtrack to the Fall Classic _ at least during the three games played in Texas.

Napoli’s offense was never in question, even in Los Angeles. The big knock on him was that his defense wasn’t very good, particularly when it came to throwing out runners.

The Cardinals probably have a vastly different opinion of him by now.

Besides calling marvelous games behind the plate _ Napoli also played first base in Game 3 _ he often made the Cardinals pay for some ill-advised baserunning.

Twice in Game 5, Napoli threw out Allen Craig heading for second when Albert Pujols failed to make contact on hit-and-run plays. Then, with the bases loaded in the sixth inning in Game 6, the catcher alertly picked off Holliday when the St. Louis star strayed too far from third base.

The bullpen squandered his stellar effort, though. Rather than celebrating Friday night as the MVP of the World Series, Napoli was resigned to a footnote in history.

“Just the same way that it will never get old to pop champagne and celebrate. This will never be a good feeling. It hurts,” first baseman Michael Young said. “It’s hard to go through a full season and play so well and get to Game 7 of a World Series and not get it done.”

Napoli knows that better than just about anyone.

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