Cruz's slam is signature blast of homer-happy postseason -- for now
MILWAUKEE -- Postseason baseball has been in session for more than a century, yet not before Monday had a player ended a game with a walk-off grand slam. That came courtesy of the Rangers' Nelson Cruz, who hit an 11th inning slam to win Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.
Cruz's moonshot came off a slider that barely slid from the Tigers' Ryan Perry and which the slugger dutifully deposited in the leftfield bleachers. It was the signature blast in a homer-happy playoffs, though it's hardly the only historically significant longball this October.
In Game 4 of the ALDS, Texas' Adrian Beltre hit three home runs to help the Rangers clinch the series against the Rays, becoming just the sixth man to hit three in one postseason game.
In Games 3 and 4 of the NLDS, Diamondbacks joined the 1977 Dodgers as the only teams to hit grand slams in consecutive postseason games.
In the decisive Game 5 of the ALDS against the Yankees, Detroit's Don Kelly and Delmon Young gave the Tigers the first back-to-back home runs of their 86 postseason games.
This is to say nothing of the home runs that were plenty significant, if not necessarily historic: Ben Francisco's three-run homer to break a scoreless tie and give the Phillies all the runs they needed in a 3-1 win over St. Louis in Game 3 of the NLDS; Delmon Young's go-ahead homer in the bottom of the seventh to break a 4-4 tie and give the Tigers a 5-4 lead they would not relinquish in Game 3 of the ALDS with the Yankees; or even Cruz's first home run of Monday night, the one that tied the game in the seventh inning.
But it was his second that will be remembered forever in Arlington. Though one run would have sufficed for the win, the lasting image of Texas' ALCS Game 2 victory will be Cruz's swing and his extended pause at home plate, watching the arc of the ball until it disappeared from sight into the throngs of roaring fans.
(The Mets' Robin Ventura hit what would have been the first postseason walk-off grand slam to win Game 5 of the 1999 NLCS, but his teammates swarmed in celebration before he reached second base and he was instead credited with a one-run single.)
"First two pitches, I was too aggressive," Cruz told reporters in Texas of his home-run at bat. "I hit the ball -- foul ball, foul ball. So after that, I told myself just slow down and try to hit a fly ball to the outfield."
It was the second lead-changing home run in the game. Earlier in the afternoon the Tigers' Ryan Raburn flipped a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 lead with his third-inning home run.
This game of postseason home-run leapfrog started the night before in Milwaukee during NLCS Game 1, when the Brewers' Ryan Braun, the Cardinals' David Freese and the Brewers' Prince Fielder hit successive multi-run homers that turned deficits in to leads.
"We have an offense that's not necessarily dependent on the home run," Braun said, "but at times in the year we've relied on it, and I think whenever offensively you have multiple guys that can hit home runs it can happen quickly."
Once again, we are reminded that power plays in the postseason. In each of the past three seasons the World Series combatants have ranked in the top 10 in the league in homers, highlighted by the 2009 matchup between the Yankees and Phillies, who ranked first and second that year.
This year five of the eight playoff teams ranked in the majors' top 10 in homers, and none ranked lower than 18th. Collectively, they scored 37.0 percent of their runs via the homer, compared to 33.3 percent for the non-playoff qualifiers. In the postseason, teams have scored 41.2 percent of their runs on homers, a mild uptick, but what's really been impressive is that seven of the 11 homers hit in the LCS rounds have tied the game or changed leads.
The whole postseason is a small sample size -- the five-game division series in particular gives baseball's playoffs a tournament feel -- but its national stage makes even small deviations feel significant.
While the pitching is typically better in the postseason, so too are the power hitters more efficient at capitalizing on mistakes. Baseballs are carrying over the fences at a higher rate: In the regular season players averaged a homer every 36.4 at bats, a rate that has decreased to 28.9 in the playoffs.
That last figure is the fifth-best postseason home run rate of the wild-card era, which began in 1995, even though the regular-season homer rate this year was the worst -- i.e. 17th out of 17 seasons -- during that same time span.
The eight playoff teams boast a disproportionate number of home-run hitters. While those eight clubs constitute 26.7 percent of all MLB clubs, their rosters accounted for 33.0 percent of hitters with at least 10 homers this season, 36.8 percent of hitters with at least 20 homers and a staggering 58.3 percent of hitters with at least 30 homers.
There were 13 clubs who had at least seven players with 10 or more homers, and more than half -- seven -- reached the postseason. Only the Diamondbacks made the playoffs with fewer double-digit homer hitters, but they've hit the most homers of the playoffs with 10.
Game-changing and game-ending postseason home runs tend to endure in our memories. They don't have to be a World Series-ending walk-off like Bill Mazeroski in 1960 or Joe Carter in 1993, or Kirk Gibson's Hollywood homer in 1988 or Carlton Fisk's famed wave-it-fair homer in 1975. Those four are on a different tier of fame, but those aren't the only pivotal blasts in October to have made an impression. Consider the bomb the Cardinals' Albert Pujols hit off Astros closer Brad Lidge in the 2005 NLCS, for instance. St. Louis didn't even go on to win that series, yet Pujols' majestic home run, which came with the Cardinals down to their last out of the season, is the lasting memory.
This year Cruz's grand slam could join that pantheon for its rarity, particularly if the Rangers eventually win the World Series. Two other memorable shots left the bats of the Brewers' big two on Sunday: Braun's homer was crushed an estimated 463 feet, though that seemed like a lowball estimate, and Fielder's blast left his bat at 119 miles per hour, the fastest home-run ball this season.
In Milwaukee on Monday night Pujols again took the stage, setting a tone for the Cardinals' lineup in the first inning, when he crushed a two-homer off the façade of the second deck in leftfield, scoring St. Louis' first two of 11 runs on 17 hits.
"When they come, they come in a bunch," Pujols said.
Across baseball this October, they certainly have.