By Lee Horton
Peninsula Daily News
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The 2012 Port Angeles High School graduate, who was drafted in the 34th round by the Texas Rangers as a relief pitcher last June, will leave Monday for his first spring training in Surprise, Ariz.
Pingpong was part of Napiontek's daily routine while playing rookie league baseball in Surprise last summer,
“It's great for hand-eye coordination,” Napiontek said of pingpong earlier this week. “It's the best baseball training you can do.
“I've improved 10-fold. Some of those Dominican players are really good, so it's adapt or die.
“When $5 is on the line, you get better real quick.”
Since returning to Port Angeles in September, Napiontek has spent his time training for the upcoming baseball season, hunting and giving baseball lessons to kids ages 9 to 17.
While he has enjoyed catching up with his home town, Napiontek is excited about his return to sunny Arizona, where he will play 28 games in 28 days.
“It's a good grind,” he said of the busy schedule. “I'm lucky enough to get paid to do what I love.”
In 15 relief appearances for the Rangers' rookie league team in July and August, Napiontek was 2-0 with a 1.25 earned-run average in 21 2/3 innings with 18 strikeouts.
The 6-foot-8 right-hander will continue to work out of the bullpen with the goal of becoming a closer.
“I really enjoy coming in in a jam and bailing a guy out,” Napiontek said of closing.
In his short time with the Rangers, Napiontek has already increased his fastball to 94 miles per hour, 3 mph better than when he was at Lower Columbia College last spring.
He has worked primarily with pitching coach Brian Shouse, who pitched professionally for 20 years, to improve his pitching mechanics and mental approach.
Especially his mental approach.
“If a hitter's swinging late on a fastball, you don't want to bail him out by throwing a different pitch,” Napiontek said.
“Basically, having a fearless approach.”
And all this happens in Surprise, which is 30 miles from Phoenix, where temperatures are already in the high 70s and low 80s.
Of course, as the summer drags on, those temperatures rise to as high as 115 degrees Fahrenheit.
Napiontek said adjusting to the heat wasn't difficult because the Rangers make sure the players stay hydrated.
While living in Surprise, Napiontek and his fellow minor-league players live in a Holiday Inn Express.
“They take care of us there. We don't even have to make our own beds,” Napiontek said.
“I'm living the dream.”
Napiontek's goal is to do well enough during spring training that the Rangers advance him to the Spokane Indians or the Hickory (N.C.) Crawdads, both Class A teams.
He said he enters spring training in the best shape of his life, saying the offseason training program the Rangers sent him back home with was “flawless.”
He also worked out with Port Angeles High School players, particularly senior Larsson Chapman.
“I just tried to relay some of the information that I've gained,” Napiontek said.
“I wish I had known half of what I know now.”
As Napiontek returns to his own learning sessions, it likely won't be alongside Texas Rangers stars such as Derek Holland, Adrian Beltre and new acquisition Prince Fielder, as the big-leaguers and minor-leaguers are separated and play in different games.
Napiontek, though, did say he was able to build a friendship with Texas reliever Neftali Feliz, who was rehabbing in Surprise last summer.
Spring training will be the first time his family travels from Port Angeles to see him pitch as a professional baseball player.
“I'm excited to show them around the complex,” Napiontek said.
Sports Editor Lee Horton can be reached at 360-417-3525 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.