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Monday, October 10, 2011
Scary strong: Cruz powers Rangers to win

By David Schoenfield

Nelson Cruz
With Nelson Cruz's grand slam the Texas Rangers now lead the Detroit Tigers 2-0 in the ALCS.
Hanging slider, meet Nelson Cruz's bat.

For the second time in three innings, the Texas Rangers loaded the bases with no outs. In the ninth, Jose Valverde had magically escaped the jam. In the 11th inning, Cruz swung hard at a 1-2 slider from Ryan Perry. Cruz always swings hard. The pitch hung in the middle of the zone, and Cruz tattooed it over the fence in left field, a majestic fly ball that brought joy to Texas, frustration to Detroit, a 7-3 end to a suspenseful Game 2 of the American League Championship Series and a shaving-cream pie for Cruz. It was the first walk-off grand slam in postseason history (although Robin Ventura would like to add an asterisk to that factoid) and gives the Rangers a commanding 2-0 series lead.

Cruz had tied Monday's game with another towering home run in the seventh inning off Max Scherzer, another two-strike blast that hit the foul pole in left. He'd been hit by a pitch to load the bases with no outs in the ninth, screaming and writhing in pain but staying in the game. The Tigers will remember those two pitches, and the misplay by Andy Dirks and Austin Jackson in the outfield that proceeded Cruz's at-bat. Detroit fans might not like games being decided by guys such as Perry and Dirks, but that's what can happen in postseason baseball. All 25 guys matter. As the Rangers showed in this game, their bullpen is much deeper once you get past Valverde and Joaquin Benoit.

Valverde had pitched two innings for the first time all season, but the important number is that he had thrown only 23 pitches. I thought Jim Leyland might try to go a couple more batters with him, especially since the 4-5-6 hitters were coming up in the 11th for the Rangers. Instead, he turned to Perry -- over Al Albuquerque, the better pitcher over the course of the season. But Perry had thrown four scoreless innings in the postseason, so Leyland went with the "hot" hand. Perry's season line wasn't overly impressive -- .277/.317/.397 -- but he did keep the ball in the park, allowing just one home run in 141 at-bats.

With Detroit in full prevent, no-doubles defense -- Don Kelly guarding the line, the outfield playing deep -- Michael Young grounded a single past a diving Kelly, and Adrian Beltre dropped a base hit in front of Jackson. Both balls were catchable if Detroit had been playing straight up. Mike Napoli then hit a soft liner into right-center. Jackson could have called off Dirks but didn't. Dirks should have made the catch but didn't, whiffing on the play. It was inexplicably ruled a hit instead of an error, but that's just for accounting purposes. It was an embarrassing miscue for Detroit, unacceptable in playoff baseball. The bases were juiced for Cruz.

Cruz is scary strong. If he has one hole in his game, it's that he does swing for the fences on every pitch. That approach, combined with poor strike-zone judgment, makes him vulnerable with two strikes. When the count reached 1-2 this season, he hit .204, although with six home runs in 126 at-bats. With two strikes, he hit .189 overall. The Tigers got him in favorable situations, a count in which he will chase sliders away or in the dirt. Perry's pitch wasn't away, nor was it in the dirt. Game over, and you're left wondering whether this series will even get to a second start for Justin Verlander.

It's remarkable that three organizations didn't believe in Cruz. He originally was signed by the Mets, and they traded him to the A's for an obscure backup infielder named Jorge Velandia, before Cruz had even left the Dominican. Despite some excellent minor league numbers for the A's, including a .326 average with 26 home runs in 2004, they traded him after that season to Milwaukee for second baseman Keith Ginter. While Ginter would play only 51 more games in the majors, the Brewers included Cruz in a trade that sent Carlos Lee to the Rangers in 2006. Texas, trailing the division-leading A's by two games at the time of the trade, wanted Lee to bolster its playoff drive. The Rangers finished that year 13 games behind the A's, but the fruits of the deal blossomed a few seasons later.

Cruz's postseason pedigree is starting to mount. He now has nine home runs and 17 RBIs in 22 games, and 16 of his 24 hits have gone for extra bases. Not bad for a guy hitting seventh in the order.

A few more notes on a game that included several moments worth second-guessing: