If you closely look at the career of former Cleveland Indians slugger Travis Hafner, there are a couple of things that standout that make him one of the most underrated players in the history of the franchise.
In a decade with the Indians, he carried an average of .268, with 200 homers and 688 runs batted in.
He is ninth all-time in homers for the Tribe, and if it were not for a shoulder injury in 2008, who knows if Hafner today might be up for consideration for a bust in Cooperstown New York at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Now living in Tampa, Florida coaching youth baseball, Hafner is still remembered fondly by Indians fans for his powerful swing, which was again on display in hitting a homer last year at the celebrity all-star softball game two days prior to the MLB All-Star Game at Progressive Field.
While mentioning Hafner’s name conjurors up a number of memorable moments while with the Indians, two games from his breakout season of 2004 stand out that don’t seem to get talked about enough in Indians history.
Hafner came to the Tribe in December of 2002 in a deal with the Texas Rangers for pitcher Ryan Drese and catcher Einar Diaz.
He played in 91 games in 2003, hitting 14 homers and 40 RBI, but it wasn’t until 2004 when he really started to find himself at the plate, becoming one of the best hitters in all of baseball.
That season Hafner hit .311 with 28 homers and 109 runs batted in, ending the season 24th overall in the AL MVP voting.
It was two rarely talked about games in Anaheim against the Angels that showed that when Hafner’s swing was at its best, he was one of the most dangerous hitters in all of baseball.
The first of the back-to-back affairs took place on July 18 2004, as the Indians were in Anahiem for the first of a quick two-game set with the Angels.
The Tribe entered the affair 44-47, 4.5 games back of first in the American League Central division.
That night Hafner would go 3-for-4, hitting a pair of homers, drawing two walks, and amassing five runs batted in.
The second homer of the game was the clincher, as “Pronk” crushed a three-run homer off Angels closer Troy Percival in the 10 inning with the game tied at five.
“The second homerun came when it was 5-5 in the 10, facing Troy Percival, so it was a really tough at-bat, I got to a 3-2 count and hit a flyball to center for a three-run homer that put us up 8-5,” Hafner said.
“2-2 he threw a curveball down and in, and 3-2 he threw a fastball, it was a good fastball to hit, the best one of the at-bat and I was able to and I hit that one well.”
Percival saved 33 games in 2004, and over his 14-year Major League career saved 358 games, so slamming a home run in a big spot like Hafner did showed how locked in the Tribe slugger was.
“He had a really good fastball, and a really good curveball, it was a little funky with a lot of moving parts, and the ball kind of like really jumped out of there.
“Big spot in the game, so if you are going to hit a homerun that’s the time to do it,” Hafner said.
Earlier in the game Hafner hit his first homer of the series, a solo shot in the first inning just three batters in that gave the Indians an early 1-0 advantage.
“The first one was off Aaron Sele, and that was an inside fastball, there was two strikes so I was kind of protecting the plate, and I was able to get it out to center,” Hafner said.
The Indians celebrated Hafner’s two blast night and an 8-5 win, but there was not much time to enjoy it, as the team had to turn around and play another game with the Angels at 1:05pm west coast time the next day.
The finale of the set and road swing that saw the team play four in Seattle before traveling to Anaheim was to be between Indians hurler Jake Westbrook, who was 6-5, and the Angels Jarrod Washburn, who came in with a solid 10-4 mark.
The Indians jumped on the Angels lefty for three runs in the first, with Hafner earning another RBI with a sac fly that scored Matt Lawton.
Cleveland, thanks to Hafner, put the game away two innings later, as they scored four times to build a 7-0 edge.
Coco Crisp doubled to start the frame, and after two groundouts Casey Blake worked a walk, bringing up Hafner.
Pronk worked to a 2-2 count, and Washburn tried to sneak a fastball past him, which Hafner squared up and crushed to left center for a three-run homer.
“The theme of those two games was middle of the park, one was to center, one was to left center. I know that Washburn would come after you with a sneaky type of fastball, you had to be ready to hit, his fastball had some life on it, he was a tough lefty,” Hafner said.
The 6-0 lead was more than enough for Westbrook, but that wasn’t the last time Hafner would be heard from in the blowout affair.
Up 7-0 entering the fifth, Hafner again won a battle against Washburn, who on a 2-0 pitch crushed another offering from the lefty, sailing into the seats in center for his second homer of the day, fourth in two days, giving the Tribe an 8-0 lead.
Cleveland built a 10-2 lead entering the eighth inning, and by then Hafner was 3-for-3 with two homers, a single and four RBI.
He had one more chance at the plate in the 9 with the Tribe up 13-5, going up against Angels reliever Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez.
Hafner didn’t wait long to hit his third homer of the day, hitting the first offering from Rodriguez down the right field line for a solo homer to make it 14-5 Indians.
“That one was on a middle in fastball,” Hafner said. “Knowing what the score was, the first two strikes I was probably looking for something to drive, potentially hit it out of the ballpark and try to get three, usually that doesn’t work out too well when you are trying to do that, the fastball he threw me, I was able to hit it down the line in right.”
The blowout and two game domination by Hafner was complete. The final tally – two games, 7-for-8, five homers, 11 RBI, five runs scored, two walks.
“Some good swings, all the homeruns except the one off K-Rod which was the last one were all to like centerfield and left center, so as a hitter when you are using the big part of the ballpark and able to drive it, your swing is in a pretty good spot.
“I don’t know if you’re necessarily trying to hit homeruns, you’re just trying to string together good at bats and get good pitches to hit,” Hafner said.
At that point in the season Hafner was also hitting .331, showing that while he had the power to have a pair of games where he slammed five homers, he also was great at making contact and finding the open spots in the field.
“If you are hitting the ball to the middle of the field and walking, those were pretty good at bats for me most of the time. It was a good day of at bats and just able to get good pitches and hit the ball hard,” Hafner said.
Oddly enough the Indians were right back at it the next night at Progressive Field against the AL Central rival Chicago White Sox.
After scoring 22 runs in two games in Anaheim, the Indians didn’t score a single run in the first two games against the Sox, losing 14-0 and 3-0, with Hafner going 1-for-7 in the two games.
“That’s baseball,” Hafner laughed when remembering the two shutout losses.
For a good part of his tenure with the Indians, Hafner was as good as any player in baseball. A shoulder injury in 2008 derailed what was a stellar career, but one that is still remembered fondly by Indians fans to this day.