Rangers in Cruz control after grand slam in 11th

ARLINGTON, Texas – Nelson Cruz(notes) arrived at that slider as they all did, Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers alike, across 4½ hours of baseball and nearly 11 innings, through nine pitching changes and countless opportunities logged with expressionless aggravation.

They’d spiraled eventually to Tigers reliever Ryan Perry(notes) against Rangers slugger Cruz, and then that slider, the last of 355 pitches.

They’d played through mid-afternoon clouds, late-afternoon sun, the dank Texas gloaming and then into darkness. They’d wound through a ninth inning in which both teams loaded the bases and got nothing for it, beyond the gnawing sense they’d lost Game 2 of the American League Championship Series then and there.

Nelson Cruz hits grand slam.
(Getty Images)
Grand Cruz
The Rangers’ outfielder Nelson Cruz hit the first walkoff grand slam in playoff history.
Source: MLB

Scott Feldman(notes), the Rangers reliever who’d pitched 4 1/3 one-hit, scoreless innings behind erratic starter Derek Holland(notes), had raced from the clubhouse when his team had put the first three men of the ninth inning on base. He couldn’t miss the climax. But a short fly ball to left field followed, and then a first-to-home-to-first double play, and then the 10th inning.

“Damn,” he muttered to himself, “I think I jinxed us.”

They’d clung to their bullpens, their closers, and then the relievers who hadn’t pitched leading to their closers.

By the time that slider had landed among the happy Texans beyond the left-field wall, plated four runs and gave the Rangers a 7-3 win and a two-games-to-none lead in the series, they’d each led for their share of the game, and they’d stood tied for the better part of four innings, or since the last time Cruz had turned on something up and appealing.

One by one, following that last slider, four Rangers arrived to a pack of howling, bouncing teammates, Cruz after Mike Napoli(notes), Napoli after Adrian Beltre(notes), Beltre after Michael Young(notes).

Cruz, who’d homered on Tigers starter Max Scherzer’s(notes) final pitch in the seventh inning (and whose fourth-inning home run in Game 1 provided the Rangers’ final run in a 3-2 win), streaked down the line, shed his helmet and flung it underhanded toward the mob scene.

“Just open it up, open it up!” Cruz was asking. “So I can go inside!”

He’d missed the first half of September because of an ailing hamstring, returned and in the second half of the month batted .190. Then he’d batted .067 in four games against the Tampa Bay Rays in the division series. After spending most of the season batting fifth or sixth, he’d bat seventh in October, in part because the Rangers are so deep, and in part because Cruz was so out of whack.

“I told you a few days ago,” Cruz said, “my swing was coming.”

And so in the span of seven plate appearances, from the fourth inning Friday through the 11th on Monday, Cruz had three home runs, a double, was hit by a pitch in the wrist and won two playoff games. The last was the first grand slam walkoff in the history of the postseason, the most elegant of endings to a game played to the edge of their nerves.

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The Tigers, so game in spite of Miguel Cabrera’s(notes) slump, and Magglio Ordonez’s(notes) fractured ankle, and Delmon Young’s(notes) ailing oblique, were right there with them. They, too, pitched well into their bullpen. They, too, got the big home run, a three-run thunderbolt from Ryan Raburn(notes), who’d played left field for the injured Young on Friday, then right field for the injured Ordonez on Monday

Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus juggles the ball before making an inning-ending catch with the bases loaded in the ninth inning of Monday's Game 2.
(AP)

They, too, had loaded the bases and took their shots against the opposing closer, this being Neftali Feliz(notes), and came within inches of stealing back to Detroit with a win. But with two out in the ninth inning and Victor Martinez(notes) having done what he could with a fastball nearing triple figures, Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus(notes) had dashed into center field to take that hope away. His back to the infield, Andrus took the ball over his shoulder, babied it into his glove, bobbled it once, chipped the nail on the ring finger of his right hand grasping for it again, then trapped it against his chest.

“All the fans screaming … ” Andrus said.

“I saw a little white … ” the catcher, Napoli, said.

“I was like, uh, oh, ah, oh … ” said Josh Hamilton(notes), who’d been closing from center field as quietly as he could, so as not to spook his shortstop.

“When you’re winning,” Raburn said, “that stuff falls in.”

The 10th inning passed, and then the Tigers’ half of the 11th, by which time closer Jose Valverde(notes) had thrown two innings. Jim Leyland called upon Perry, a right-hander with a three-day growth of blond beard and a slider he generally likes more than his fastball.

Young singled. Beltre singled. Napoli hit a flare to right-center field that center fielder Austin Jackson(notes) left to Andy Dirks(notes), who got a glove on it, enough to knock it down and hold Young to third base.

That brought Cruz, who’d had an arduous few innings. He’d kept the Tigers’ go-ahead run from scoring in the ninth, when he’d dug Don Kelly’s(notes) double out of the right-field corner in time to convince third-base coach Gene Lamont to hold Ramon Santiago(notes) at third. He’d taken that fastball off the wrist in the bottom of the ninth, loading the bases with none out against Valverde.

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And now here he was in the 11th, every last fan standing around him, the place weary of near misses and heartache.

Perry threw a slider inside and Cruz fouled it off. He threw a fastball and Cruz bombed it down the left-field line, long and loud … and foul.

“He’s unbelievable,” Napoli said. “The way he backspins a ball is pretty impressive.”

When he’s going well, Cruz hits down through the ball, clips it just right, so it carries unusual distances. It’s a gift, along with the product of endless batting practice. Power hitters swoon over backspin the way middle infielders do over soft hands.

“We constantly try to remind him, he doesn’t have to hit it far, he has to hit it hard,” Hamilton said.

The far, that takes care of itself.

At 0-and-2, the scoreboard read that the count was 1-and-2. Plate umpire Larry Vanover leaned over toward Cruz.

One-and-2? Or oh-and-2?”

“Oh-and-2,” Cruz admitted.

The fastball was hit so solidly, Perry decided not to throw it again. His next pitch was a slider. It veered wide of the strike zone.

It was time, after every inch, every second of a long day of baseball, after all the hits and misses, to throw that slider.

It arrived middle in.

It left with a roar.

“Crazy,” Cruz said. “Just crazy.”

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Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Oct 11, 2011