ARLINGTON, Texas -- Nelson Cruz already had his name etched in the 2011 AL Championship Series MVP trophy before he came to the plate in the seventh inning of Game 6.
But when you have established yourself as the Rangers' version of Mr. October and carry a "boomstick" and fire fake guns in the air after a big play, you have to leave the fans with something they'll remember in the clinching game, right?
So with the Rangers already leading 13-4, Cruz got a first-pitch split-fingered fastball from Brad Penny and deposited it into the left-field seats. The 50,000-plus at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington cheered until Cruz acknowledged them, aware that the slugger was now in a class all by himself. No one else in major league history has hit six homers or collected 13 RBIs in a playoff series. He was 8-for-22 (.364) and all eight hits were extra-base hits -- six homers and two doubles. Only one player has had more extra-base hits in a playoff series: Yankes' Hideki Matsui had nine in the 2004 ALCS against Boston.
Cruz also mashed six homers in last year's postseason, becoming the first player with six or more home runs in a postseason in two different years.
"It was his series," Rangers first-base and outfield coach Gary Pettis said. "What can you say? He did it all. He played defense. He swung the bat. He drove in runs. We’re glad he’s on our team."
All of this comes after he went 1-for-15 with a run and five strikeouts in the ALDS. He talked with hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh near the end of this series and focused on one thought: slowing down. Cruz didn't get the benefit of a rehab assignment after returning from a disabled list stint with a strained hamstring. And he was amped up. He looked at video before the ALCS and felt like he was swinging at hittable pitches.
"He was getting a little big with his swing," Coolbaugh said. "He was trying to do too much. He had a couple of good at-bats at the end of that [ALDS] series and started to get a feel for it. He was in a good mind frame to perform and do what he’s capable of doing. He went to right-center, left field, all parts of the field. He was in a zone, and that's what he’s capable of when he slows things down."
The struggles in the ALDS are now long forgotten. So is the fact that the Rangers had to put Cruz through waivers in 2008 and that no team was willing to pay $20,000 to pick him up.
The Cruz that couldn't hit in the major leagues but crushed balls out in the minors has now become one of the most feared hitters in postseason history. No one, not even Reggie Jackson, has put together two consecutive postseasons like Cruz.
"It was ridiculous," said Josh Hamilton, last year's ALCS MVP. "It was fun to watch. It’s one thing to be in the stands, but when you’re down here on the field with him you can see the intensity, you can see the focus. It’s exciting."
It wasn't as if these home runs weren't hit at critical times, either. Cruz won Game 2 for the Rangers with a walk-off grand slam in the 11th inning, becoming the first player in postseason history to do that. His three-run blast in Game 4 also gave the Rangers a nice cushion in extra innings, allowing Neftali Feliz to pitch with a four-run lead. And he helped win Game 4 a few innings earlier with his arm, nailing Miguel Cabrera at the plate with a one-hop rope from right field to keep the Rangers in front.
"I haven’t seen a better throw than that one," Pettis said. "That saved that game."
Cruz hit a 99.9 mph fastball from Justin Verlander for a home run in Game 5 and was in the on-deck circle as the game ended with the Tigers winning, 7-5.
"I wonder what would have happened in Game 5 if he had come up in the ninth," general manager Jon Daniels said. "Special players do special things when the game calls for it and he did that."
Cruz, 31, did it with a smile on his face and that infectious laugh. He always seems to look like he's having more fun than everyone else.
"I saw him do this last year on TV and I got to see it in person now," third baseman Adrian Beltre said. "Being here and seeing it for myself is amazing. We wouldn’t be here without him."
Now Cruz and his teammates are headed to the World Series.
"It's awesome," Cruz said. "We wanted to do this again and we have. Now we want to go all the way."
Cruz's boomstick could certainly help carry them there. The sellout crowd at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington yelled "Cruuuuuz" as he received the MVP trophy for a playoff series that was record-setting.