Until Nelson Cruz happened, no one had ever hit six home runs in one playoff series before. The Texas Rangers slugger went just 1-for-15 in the team's ALDS win, but came alive in a huge way as the Rangers topped the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS and cruised on to the World Series.
Cruz set single-series postseason records for homers and RBI, and tied the one for total bases.
The six homers were thrillers, too. Only one came before the seventh inning. One was a walk-off bomb. One tied the game late in its progress. An outrageously late bloomer whose first impact season came at age 28, Cruz is nonetheless on a course toward being one of the all-time great postseason sluggers.
As a tribute, here are brief reviews of his six ALCS homers, ranked according to their importance.
One thing bears mentioning when discussing Cruz's outburst of a series: It was not his power that provided his biggest singular contribution to a Rangers win. It was his arm.
In the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 4, the Tigers looked sure to break the 3-3 tie and tie the series at 2-2. With Miguel Cabrera on third base, Delmon Young hit a fly ball of what would almost always have been sufficient depth down the right-field line.
Cruz, though, set himself well, caught the ball, threw a slicing one-hopper to Mike Napoli at the plate and retired Cabrera to end the inning. The play showed off Cruz's other plus-plus tool, one he used to shut down opponent running games at times from right field over the past few years.
The double play swung that game in the Rangers' favor, and raised their win expectancy by 28 percent. Here are Cruz's six homers in chronological order, with the listed number being the change in percent win probability:
- Game 1, 7 percent
- Game 2, 21 percent
- Game 2, 6 percent
- Game 4, 12 percent
- Game 5, 3 percent
- Game 6,
Sometimes, kids, defense really does win championships. Now, on to home runs.
The Rangers led by nine runs and had their slot in the World Series sewn up already, but as Cruz came to bat in the bottom of the seventh inning, the crowd began to buzz a bit. They wanted to see history, and Cruz gave it to them.
The ball left the ballpark by relatively little, but like all Cruz homers, it looked good from the moment it left the bat.
This one ended up being largely inconsequential, but it was a blast in three ways:
- Cruz homered twice off Verlander in the series, proving his dominance by bludgeoning the game's most hyped pitcher of 2011;
- The shot wrapped around the left-field foul pole, narrowly fair, leaving the whole ballpark doing something like what you see Verlander and Cabrera doing here; and
- Cruz yanked, just walloped, this pitch but was nearly too far out in front of it. The ball traveled 100 miles an hour to home plate.
The shot closed a 7-2 gap to 7-4, and Verlander limited the damage beyond that, so the bomb came in a losing cause. It was relatively unimportant, but among the most impressive homers ever.
As Cruz came to bat in the bottom of the 11th inning in Game 2, it was almost as if everyone knew what would happen. The crowd was in full throat, which only made sense since the bases were loaded with no outs, and even a fly ball of moderate depth or a high-bounding ground ball would win the game.
Instead, Cruz launched a missile into the night, lending a ring of the hilariously superfluous to the moment and sending Texas to a four-run walk-off win. It didn't matter much that he hit a homer instead of a single or productive out, but it sure was neat, and it sent a message to the Tigers: Texas was going to mess with them pretty hard all series.
Hindsight makes this one feel more important, perhaps, than it actually was. Cruz lit up Verlander for the first time in the bottom of the fourth inning of Game 1, leading off the frame with a home run that extended the Rangers lead to three runs.
That the scoring stopped right then and there for the Rangers, and that the Tigers eventually scored twice to make Cruz's homer seem more valuable, cannot be allowed to cloud our judgment. Even so, Cruz did homer off Verlander early and make Texas the clear aggressor right away in Game 1. It had value as a tone-setting shot, if nothing else.
Mike Napoli had already broken an 11th-inning tie when Cruz came to bat with two men on in that frame of Game 4, but in the playoffs, complacency invites disaster. Therefore, Cruz made certain the Tigers would be saddled with a massive deficit by ripping the ball into the depths beyond left-center field, an area unreachable for most on cool autumn nights.
For Cruz, nothing was beyond reach in the ALCS.
Max Scherzer was cruising in the seventh inning of Game 2, pitching so well that the 3-2 deficit Texas faced looked a bit daunting from the outside.
Cruz was all about inside power, though, and when Scherzer let a 1-2 offering linger too much in the strike zone, he yanked it into the upper deck close to the left-field foul pole. That shot set up his grand slam later in the game, and although it may always be less remembered, it was the most important shot of Cruz's remarkable series.