Busy Navarro can rest in offseason
Rays All-Star catcher has caught every inning of postseason
ST. PETERSBURG -- At times, Game 2 of the American League Championship Series -- which began on Saturday and ended on Sunday -- looked like one of those revolving doors at the mall. Players shuffled through as the bullpens cleared and an ALCS record-tying 37 players were used between the Rays and the Red Sox.
Tampa Bay slugger Cliff Floyd -- who was replaced in the fifth inning -- joked he could barely remember if he played in the five-hour, 27-minute contest. Catcher Dioner Navarro didn't have that luxury.
The Rays' starting backstop -- who has already smashed his career high in games behind the plate -- was the batterymate to all seven arms used in the 11-inning contest.
The Red Sox pinch-hit for catcher Jason Varitek in the top of the ninth, inserting Kevin Cash behind the dish for the final three frames. In the opposite dugout, Navarro knew there was no chance he would take off the gear until the Rays had thrown their final pitch, which turned out to be the 232nd of the night.
Such is life for Navarro, who is running on fumes and playing on guts. Because of the knee infection that has backup catcher Shawn Riggans on the disabled list, Navarro is backed up only by 30-year-old rookie Michel Hernandez, who has 10 games of big league experience.
Pitching may carry teams in the postseason, but make no mistake: the Rays have put a huge weight on the 5-foot-9 Navarro's shoulders.
"He's a workhouse," Riggans said. "He's battling. He had the [cramping in both] hamstrings for a little while, it gave him problems last year. But you never hear him say anything. The guy catches day games after night games, whatever [Rays manager Joe Maddon] asks him to do."
Sometimes, Navarro catches night-into-day games. It was just shy of 2:30 a.m. ET on Sunday when the 24-year-old finally packed up and left the Rays' clubhouse, nearly six hours after starter Scott Kazmir threw Navarro the game's first pitch.
"He's the catalyst of the [pitching] staff," Rays right-hander and Game 3 starter Matt Garza said. "He comes out and takes control. And then off the bench, in the lineup, he sets the tone."
Navarro's career year
Navarro hit a career-high .295 with 54 RBIs, finishing second in batting average to Minnesota's Joe Mauer among AL catchers. His average remained at .300 or better every day of the season until Aug. 12, as the switch-hitter proved to be the Rays' most consistent and clutch performer at the dish. Navarro hit .314 with runners in scoring position, .429 with the bases loaded and .305 with men on and two outs.
He credits a separate-but-equal approach for the marked improvement in both facets of his game.
"I've got to forget about what I did at the plate and concentrate on what I do behind it," he said. "[Hitting] matters in the moment, but after that, it's over."
Considered a front-line catcher and prized prospect, the Rays made a multi-player trade with the Dodgers to obtain Navarro midway through 2006. But after a dismal '07 season in which Navarro hit .227, many outside the organization doubted the 24-year-old's ability as a starting big league backstop.
To their credit, the Rays exercised patience, and Maddon -- a former Minor League catcher -- exercised wisdom.
Navarro deems the catching experience of Maddon and bullpen coach Bobby Ramos (who spent five years as a backup with the Expos) as one of his biggest advantages in Tampa Bay.
"Working with them the whole year, they kind of understand better than other places," Navarro said. "It's such a hard position to play ... having their support and [them] doing whatever they have to do to keep me right, that's the biggest thing for me."
This season, Navarro became the first backstop in Rays history to be selected to the All-Star team, and he didn't commit an error behind the plate until July 1. While he is quick to deflect any individual praise, Navarro's teammates have no problem giving kudos to the man behind the mask.
"He's been awesome," reliever Grant Balfour said. "I love it."
"You have a guy behind the plate who you have a lot of trust in and you feel comfortable with. That's a huge reflection to the pitching staff. You have to give him a lot of credit."
After a stint on the DL in April (right hand lacerations) that sidelined him for 16 games, Navarro was active and behind the plate for more than 80 percent of the Rays' regular-season contests. It's easy to see every time he runs down the first-base line that Navarro's legs are still not full throttle.
This is the where all the offseason conditioning Navarro did is paying dividends. The bumps he can wrap up. The bruises he can ice down. He made it a point to get into better shape this winter and arrived at Spring Training ready to command the pitching staff and assume a leadership role.
"He's the heart and soul of our team," Riggans said. "He's the catcher, our quarterback, and we need him out there."
Navarro has caught every inning of the Rays' first six postseason games, and he will be behind the plate for however many may follow.
"It's really exhausting," Navarro said in the wee hours following Saturday's 11-inning contest. "High-intensity games like [Saturday], you've got to be paying attention to every pitch, every at-bat and every hitter."
But it is a grueling challenge the gritty Navarro welcomes.
"I just want to go back home and lay down," he said. "And then go right back at [the Red Sox] for the next game. I mean, I'm tired right now, but I feel pretty good."
Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.