Nelson Cruz powers Rangers to AL title
October, 15, 2011
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelNelson Cruz's six home runs and 13 RBIs in the ALCS set postseason records.The Texas Rangers pitchers started six games in the ALCS and managed to go six innings just one time. They allowed 36 hits, 21 runs and nine home runs in 28.2 innings while posting a 6.59 ERA. They didn't win a game.
But baseball games aren't won by starting pitchers. They're won by teams.
The Rangers had the better lineup, the better depth, the better defense, the better bullpen.
And they had Nelson Cruz.
Cruz put the exclamation point on Saturday night's 15-5 destruction of the Detroit Tigers with a two-run homer in the seventh inning, giving him six home runs and 13 RBIs for the series -- both postseason records for any series. He'd already become just the fourth player in postseason history to hit two extra-inning home runs in a career, and he did it one series.
And this guy hits seventh in the Texas lineup.
There's no need to go overboard analyzing a blowout like this game, but it begins with Max Scherzer's poor start for Detroit. As good as he had looked this postseason, his effort was a reminder of why he had a 4.43 ERA this season. Among 42 qualified American League starters, that ranked 34th. As good as his stuff is, he's still plagued by inconsistency and control problems at times; he had three starts this season where he was knocked out before four innings, six starts where he allowed at least six runs. When he's bad, he's bad. (Of the 18 pitchers this season to allow at least six runs in six or more starts, his 14.23 ERA in those "bad" games was third-worst.) He couldn't fight through his control problems in this game -- he walked four while getting just seven outs -- opening up the floodgates for Texas' nine-run third inning.
Tigers fans will undoubtedly howl at two questionable umpiring calls in that inning. After three runs had already scored to give Texas a 3-2 lead, Cruz checked his swing on a 2-2 pitch; he appeared to go too far, but it was called a ball and Cruz walked on the next pitch, knocking out Scherzer. Later, after David Murphy's two-run single off Daniel Schlereth, Craig Gentry hit a grounder to second baseman Ramon Santiago, a play in which Miguel Cabrera had also attempted to make (for some reason). Santiago tried to get the force at second, even though Rick Porcello was covering the base. Murphy was ruled safe on a bang-bang play. The inning rolled on with Ian Kinsler's two-run single and Michael Young's two-run double.
Tigers fans may also question the decision to bring in Schlereth with the bases loaded and the score still 3-2 to face Murphy. He hadn't appeared in the series, so hadn't pitched in a game in 11 days. Considering he has difficulties throwing strikes as is (5.9 walks per nine innings), it was a tough situation to bring him in for. Tigers manager Jim Leyland wanted the lefty to face the left-handed Murphy, but with the Detroit's season on the line, it seemed a strange time to go to the 11th guy on your staff. Leyland ended up seeing his pitching destroyed without getting Joaquin Benoit in the game in that inning. Saving a guy for the seventh or eighth inning does you no good if you give up nine runs in the third. Detroit pitchers ended up throwing 50 pitches in the bottom half of the third and it took 37 minutes.
Ron Washington didn't have to do much after that, but he didn't hesitate to pull Derek Holland with two outs in the fifth after Austin Jackson hit a two-run homer to make it 9-4. Washington isn't concerned about bruising the egos of his starters; he's trying to win ballgames. Unlike Leyland, he didn't mess around with anyone but his best pitchers; in his case, that means his bullpen. Scott Feldman got the final out of the fifth and then Alexi Ogando came on for two innings. The Rangers became just the second team to win a best-of-7 series without getting a win from its starters, joining the 1997 Cleveland Indians, who won the ALCS that year in six games.
Give Washington credit as well for sticking with Young as his cleanup hitter. Through his first seven postseason games, Young was 3-for-27 without an RBI and there were calls to move him down in the lineup. But he went 1-for-5 with an RBI in Game 4, 2-for-5 with an RBI in Game 5, and 3-for-6 with two doubles and a home run in Game 6. If he's heating up, the Rangers' lineup only looks even more lethal.
Certainly, there will be questions about the Rangers' rotation as the team gets ready for its second straight trip to the World Series, the first American League team to do that since the 2000-01 Yankees. But we have a few days to discuss whether they can win it all without getting a quality start or two in the World Series. For now, the Rangers and their fans (who once again put on a loud, terrific display of support) get to enjoy their American League championship.
And then they can start worrying about those four more wins needed for the first World Series title in franchise history.