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:
Ron Washington certainly made some curious moves. First off, I understood why he brought in Mike Gonzalez to face Kelly with two outs in the ninth, since Kelly had just four hits off left-handers all season, but considering the way Alexi Ogando was pitching, taking him out because of a bloop single to left was odd. Gonzalez is tough on lefties (.214), but it seemed a little overmanaging. And I understood the intentional walk to Miguel Cabrera -- it is Miguel Cabrera after all -- but loading the bases is always a risky proposition, especially since Neftali Feliz can have trouble throwing strikes. The Rangers escaped when Elvis Andrus hung on to Victor Martinez's little blooper. Washington also could have ran for Beltre after his leadoff double in the ninth with Craig Gentry, one of the fastest players in the majors. Could Gentry have scored on David Murphy's fly ball to Ryan Raburn? Would have been a close play, and I'm not sure he would have been sent with one out anyway.
By the way, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Beltre's double off the wall traveled 394 feet and would have been a home run in 15 of 30 major league ballparks.
How rare was Mitch Moreland's 3-2-3 double play in the bottom of the ninth? The only other player to ground into a double play in the postseason in a tie game in the ninth or later is Buster Posey, in Game 2 of last year's Division Series. (Credit ESPN Stats & Info again.) Credit to Alex Avila for a great turn on a low throw from Cabrera and a perfect throw back to Cabrera.
Can't say I understood Leyland bunting with Jhonny Peralta after Raburn's leadoff walk in the 10th. Considering the ice-cold Avila (2-for-24 in the postseason) was coming up, followed by light-hitting Dirks, it was an odd move to take the bat out of the hands of one of the few good sticks in the Detroit lineup.
Kudos to Scott Feldman for a terrific relief effort for Texas, throwing 4 1/3 innings and allowing just one hit and no walks with four strikeouts. And give Washington credit for pulling Derek Holland that early in the game.
The Tigers failed to capitalize on Holland's early wildness. They became just the sixth team in postseason history to receive at least four walks in the first two innings and not score.
It will be interesting to see whether Washington keeps Young in the cleanup spot, especially with Beltre, Napoli and Cruz following him in the order. His 11th-inning single snapped a long hitless streak, but he's just 3-for-23 (.130) in the postseason.