Walk-Off Wednesday: Ranking the Greatest Game-Ending Hits in Recent MLB History

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 20, 2020

Walk-Off Wednesday: Ranking the Greatest Game-Ending Hits in Recent MLB History

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Welcome to Walk-Off Wednesday, wherein the whole idea is pretty much self-explanatory.

    But just in case, here's the deal: We're going to celebrate some awesome walk-off hits, specifically from the last 10 seasons of Major League Baseball.

    Exactly what makes a walk-off "great" or even "the best" is open to interpretation, so we had to get creative in narrowing down our options for this list. Our solution was to choose one walk-off apiece for 12 individual categories that we made up and then rank them based on their context and memorability.

    Our only stipulation was to move postseason walk-offs to the front of the line. To this end, we handpicked one from each round of the playoffs.

    Let's count 'em down.     

12. Best Win Streak Extender: Jay Bruce Doubles the Indians to 22 Straight

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    On the night of September 14, 2017, the Cleveland Indians' 21-game winning streak was in jeopardy.

    Facing off against the Kansas City Royals at Progressive Field, the Indians went into the home half of the ninth trailing 2-1. Shortly thereafter, hard-throwing closer Kelvin Herrera needed just one more strike against Francisco Lindor to hand Cleveland its first loss since August 23.

    Instead, Lindor doubled Erik Gonzalez home from first base for the tying run. Cody Allen promptly worked around a one-out single in the top of the 10th, setting the stage for Jay Bruce to take his turn as a hero.

    Bruce came to the plate with runners on first and second and nobody out in the bottom of the 10th. After working the count to 2-0 against Brandon Maurer, he ripped a 97 mph fastball down the right field line to score Jose Ramirez and extend the Indians' winning streak to 22 games.

    Was the hit itself especially dramatic? By typical walk-off standards, not really. But hey, any hit that extends an American League-record winning streak ought to stick in anyone's memory.   

11. Best Comeback Capper: Brooks Conrad's Slam Finishes a 7-Run Rally

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    It's hard to talk about great baseball comebacks without acknowledging that time when Omar Vizquel and Jolbert Cabrera helped the 2001 Indians erase a 12-run deficit.

    While none in the 2010s was that impressive, there were some epic comebacks. Included among them is the magic trick the Atlanta Braves pulled on the Cincinnati Reds at Turner Field on May 20, 2010.

    The Braves found themselves in a deep hole right away, as young right-hander Tommy Hanson served up eight runs in just an inning-and-two-thirds. Come the bottom of the ninth, the Reds were sitting pretty on a 9-3 lead.

    But the Braves began to chip away. They opened the inning with four straight singles, a walk and an error. As a result, they had Cincinnati's lead down to three runs when Brooks Conrad stepped into the box with one man out and the bases loaded.

    On a 2-2 count, he whacked a 97 mph fastball from closer Francisco Cordero that just barely skipped over the 380-foot marker in left-center field. Grand slam. Seven-run rally and win secured.      

10. Best Unlikely Hero: Charlie Culberson's 1st in 2 Years Clinches a Division

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    You probably don't remember Henry Urrutia.

    He played in only 34 games for the Baltimore Orioles in 2013 and 2015 and hasn't been seen in the majors since. His name is worth knowing, however, because his walk-off homer from August 2015 was both the first and almost certainly the last of his MLB career.

    But as far as unlikely walk-off heroes go, we have to side with Charlie Culberson.

    Though the San Francisco Giants gave the Los Angeles Dodgers a good battle in 2016, the Dodgers were in a position to clinch the National League West on September 25 against the Colorado Rockies. They were one out away from falling short, but then Corey Seager came through with a game-tying blast off Adam Ottavino.

    The following inning, nobody at Dodger Stadium seemed too excited when Charlie Culberson strode to the plate with two men out and nobody on. And why would they be? The dude was a bench jockey whose last major league home run happened back in August 2014.

    So, of course Culberson went yard to clinch a fourth straight division title for the Dodgers. And wouldn't you know it, his next two regular-season home runs were also walk-offs.    

9. Best Bat Flip: Asdrubal Cabrera's Jubilation Will Not Be Contained

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    Of all the ways to celebrate hitting a home run, there are good reasons why the bat flip is the most prevalent.

    It's an instinctive maneuver that also happens to be aesthetically pleasing—or "cool," as the young folk say. And as Adeiny Hechavarria, David BoteTim Anderson, Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson and many, many more can attest, there's no more appropriate time for a bat flip than a walk-off.

    But if it's a question of who did it best during the 2010s, everyone can get in line after Asdrubal Cabrera's bat flip from September 22, 2016.

    For one thing, just get a load of that form. Cabrera chucked his bat into the air with a two-handed motion that smoothly transitioned into the ol' hands-raised-in-exaltation maneuver. The bat rotated several times before it hit the ground and safely out of the way of any incoming baserunners.

    What's more, this was in a game the New York Mets needed to win to stay in the National League wild-card race. It was also one that nearly escaped them, as Cabrera's three-run blast marked the second time the Mets had dug themselves out of a two-run hole opposite the Philadelphia Phillies.   

8. Best Inside-the-Park Homer: Angel Pagan Gets His Wings

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    The holy grail of walk-off hits is the inside-the-park grand slam. 

    Pittsburgh Pirates legend Roberto Clemente pulled that off on July 25, 1956 to secure a 9-8 win over the Chicago Cubs. It hadn't been done before, and it hasn't been done since.

    Thankfully, walk-off inside-the-park home runs haven't gone extinct. The great Ken Griffey Jr. had a good one way back in 2001, and the feat was accomplished as recently as August 2016 by Tyler Naquin.

    Yet Naquin's wasn't quite as dramatic as Angel Pagan's from three seasons earlier on May 25, 2013. His came when he and the San Francisco Giants were down a run in the bottom of the 10th against the Rockies. It was obvious when he hit the ball that the game would be tied, but the winning run was never quite as assured.

    To wit, Michael Cuddyer and Dexter Fowler didn't botch the recovery of the ball that badly, and the relay to the plate was fine. If Pagan had been just a few steps slower, he either would have held at third base or been the victim of an embarrassing TOOTBLAN.      

7. Best Excuse to Finally Go to Sleep: Max Muncy Ends a 7-Hour World Series Game

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    Though walk-off hits are never not exciting, sometimes the excitement is eclipsed by an overwhelming sense of relief.

    So it was on April 29, 2013, when A's slugger Brandon Moss walked it off against the Los Angeles Angels in the 19th inning. The Angels later paid it forward on August 9, 2014, when Albert Pujols' dinger in the 19th sunk the Boston Red Sox. Both games (see here and here) lasted six hours and 32 minutes.

    But for this category, we have to go with when nary a soul witnessed Max Muncy's home run in Game 3 of the 2018 World Series through clear eyes.

    That was the one in which the Dodgers struck first on a solo home run by Joc Pederson. The Red Sox later answered with a solo homer by Jackie Bradley Jr. The two clubs then exchanged runs in the 13th inning, followed by subsequent exchanges of zeroes into the bottom of the 18th.

    It was then that—on a 3-2 cutter from tireless yeoman Nathan Eovaldi—Muncy finally sent everyone home from the longest game in World Series history: seven hours and 20 minutes.   

6. Best Career Capper: Derek Jeter Wins It in His Final Home Game

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    Derek Jeter's final season with the New York Yankees in 2014 was a bittersweet affair.

    It was a slog for Jeter himself. He was coming off an injury-marred 2013 campaign, and he was north of 40 by the end of '14. He certainly looked old and beat up, as he hit just .256 and struggled defensively.

    The Yankees, meanwhile, were barely competitive en route to finishing with 84 wins and missing the playoffs. They might have done better with a superior shortstop, but...well, that was just a sword they had to fall on.

    But on the bright side, the farewell tour that Jeter went on that year was genuinely heartwarming. He received warm welcomes everywhere he went, and the Yankees pulled out all of the stops for his final homestand at Yankee Stadium in September. The only question was whether Jeter, a five-time World Series champion who'd been with the Yankees since 1995, would come through with a signature moment.

    Which brings us, at last, to the ninth inning of New York's tilt with the Orioles on September 25. Jeter came up with the score tied at 5-5 and Antoan Richardson on second, and he drove him home with a trademark line-drive single to right field. Perfect.

5. Best Regular-Season Ender: Evan Longoria Puts a Stamp on a Wild Finale

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    No single day of the last decade of MLB was as wild as September 28, 2011.

    That day began with a number of playoff spots and seeds left to be claimed, and the scenarios that would ultimately decide them were many. Accordingly, there was an endless feed of drama that finally culminated with a line drive off the bat of Evan Longoria.

    For a while, it looked like neither he nor any other Tampa Bay Rays player would be a hero at Tropicana Field that day. Though the Yankees had already punched their playoff ticket, they nonetheless started their A lineup and grabbed a quick 7-0 lead that lasted into the bottom of the eighth.

    But the Rays, who stood to clinch an AL Wild Card spot with a win and a Red Sox loss, mounted a six-run rally in the eighth and later tied the game on Dan Johnson's ninth-inning clout.

    A while later in the bottom of the 12th, Longoria stepped in with one out and hooked a 2-2 fastball from Scott Proctor just over the shortened wall in left field. The gameand the day—had been won.   

4. Best in the Wild Card Game: Edwin Encarnacion Busts out the Parrot

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    To be clear, we remember what Salvador Perez did in 2014.

    Indeed, it's impossible to forget the entirety of that American League Wild Card Game. That was the one in which the A's greeted the challenge of playing at Kauffman Stadium by securing a 7-3 lead, only for the Royals to force extra innings with four runs over the eighth and ninth.

    The A's again took the lead on an RBI single by Alberto Callaspo in the 12th, but Christian Colon came through with an RBI infield hit and a stolen base to get into scoring position. Cue Perez, whose single down the line put the Royals in the AL Division Series.

    And yet, here we are shining the spotlight on Edwin Encarnacion's heroics in the 2016 AL Wild Card Game. The reason why is really more of a directive: Just look at that dinger.

    On the doubt scale, the blast of the Toronto Blue Jays star off Ubaldo Jimenez registered a zero-point-zero. Bat flip? Check. Arms in the air? Check. Pandemonium at Rogers Centre? Check. Parrot? Oh, you better believe that was a check.      

3. Best in the Division Series: Nyjer Morgan Rescues the Brewers from Calamity

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    In one of the 2011 National League Division Series, the Milwaukee Brewers went from cruising to hanging on for dear life.

    That series started with the Brewers easily dispatching the Arizona Diamondbacks in each of the first two games at Miller Park. But when the series shifted back to Chase Field, the D-backs came back to life and tied it up with back-to-back wins.

    Game 5 was back in Milwaukee, where Arizona kept rolling on Justin Upton's go-ahead homer in the third. The Brewers grabbed the tie and the lead with runs in the fourth and sixth, but they gave it up in the ninth on a safety squeeze that was perfectly executed by Willie Bloomquist and Gerardo Parra.

    The game stayed tied into the bottom of the 10th, wherein Carlos Gomez put himself in scoring position with a single and a stolen base with one out. From there, Nyjer Morgan's slap hit up the middle was good enough to get Gomez home and clinch a spot in the National League Championship Series.

    There have been more memorable walk-off hits in recent postseason history. However, this is the only one that clinched a division series in the 2010s.  

2. Best in the Championship Series: Travis Ishikawa Becomes Bobby Thomson

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    It's understandable if you, dear reader, are sitting there mouth agape in shock that Jose Altuve isn't the man of the moment right here.

    After all, it was only seven months ago that Altuve sent the Houston Astros to the 2019 World Series with a two-run bolt off Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series. It was an incredible moment that capped an outstanding series.

    Trouble is, it's also a moment that has since become clouded by accusations that Altuve knew what was coming because of a hidden buzzer. Though he's vehemently denied this, the punishment the Astros received for cheating in 2017 does give the whole thing a smoke/fire element.

    So instead, we've erred on the side of the inoffensive with Travis Ishikawa's mind-boggling walk-off opposite the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of the 2014 National League Championship Series. 

    Up until that moment, Ishikawa was a fan favorite yet also a guy who wasn't known for, well, anything. But after that moment, he took his place alongside Bobby Thomson as a legend who won a pennant for the Giants.   

1. Best in the World Series: David Freese Finishes What He Started

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    Look, this whole exercise only ever had one possible endpoint: David Freese in the 2011 World Series.

    He and the Cardinals got to that point largely because of Chris Carpenter, whose playoff-spot-clinching shutout was one of the top storylines of the final day of the regular season. Carpenter also continued to carry St. Louis' moundstaff through October.

    Carpenter wasn't available to start Game 6 of the World Series at Busch Stadium, however, and the Texas Rangers took advantage by getting out to a 7-4 lead. The Cards got one back on an Allen Craig homer in the eighth, but they still trailed by two runs when they were down to their last strike in the ninth.

    They did have two runners on, though, and Freese brought them both home with a line-drive triple to right field. After dueling clutch hits by Josh Hamilton and Lance Berkman in the 10th, Freese was back at the plate to lead off the bottom of the 11th.

    Ultimately, he got all of a 3-2 fastball and sent it over the center field wall. That bought the Cardinals a Game 7, in which Freese further secured his place in history with two RBI in a winning effort.

                                         

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and The Baseball Gauge. All videos courtesy of Major League Baseball, via YouTube.