Nelson Cruz tied the score with a home run and became the first player in postseason history to hit a walk-off grand slam. Yet he wasn’t the Rangers’ only hero, not even close.
The Rangers are never about one player, no matter how spectacularly that player might perform. As good as Cruz was Monday, he is only the team’s No. 7 hitter, at least for the moment. It took the usual Texas village to secure a 7-3 victory in 11 innings over the Tigers in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.
Want to know why the Rangers are 5-1 in the postseason and just two victories away from their second straight World Series appearance?
It’s not because of their starting pitchers, who are averaging less than five innings per start. Nor their No. 3 hitter, Josh Hamilton, who has scored only two runs, and No. 4 hitter, Michael Young, who has zero RBI.
I could pick out a half-dozen significant contributors from Monday’s game, but I’m going to settle for just three, snubbing third baseman Adrian Beltre, who went 3-for-5 with three doubles, and right-hander Alexi Ogando, who again was brilliant in relief, working 1-2/3 scoreless innings.
I’ll go with shortstop Elvis Andrus, who still can’t figure out how he caught a popup over his shoulder to end the Tigers’ bases-loaded threat in the ninth.
With right-hander Scott Feldman, who could have been claimed on waivers by any team in July, but worked 4-1/3 scoreless innings in long relief.
And with Cruz, who now has three homers and a double in the ALCS after producing only three extra-base hits from Aug. 26 through the end of the AL Division Series.
Cruz: “It was just a matter of time”
Cruz, facing right-hander Ryan Perry with the bases loaded and none out in the 11th, quickly got down 0-2.
“The first two pitches, I was too aggressive,” Cruz said. “I hit the ball, foul ball, foul ball. So after that, I told myself, just slow down and try to hit a ball to the outfield.”
But first, there was some confusion.
The scoreboard said the count was 1-2. Plate umpire Larry Vanover had 0-2, but he checked with Tigers catcher Alex Avila and then Cruz to make sure he was correct. Cruz, rather than fib, said the count was indeed 0-2.
Earlier, Cruz had tied the score on a 1-2 count, leading off the seventh with a shot off Tigers righty Max Scherzer that hit the left-field foul pole. But in his next plate appearance, he was hit on the wrist by Tigers closer Jose Valverde, loading the bases with none out in the ninth.
Rangers manager Ron Washington said Cruz was “scared” to get hit in that spot, and that the wrist turned black and blue. Cruz acknowledged, “I thought it was worse when I got hit.”
By the 11th, he was fine.
The count again ran to 1-2. Perry hung a breaking ball. This time, there was no question about whether the ball would go fair or foul. It was Cruz’s ninth homer in 22 career postseason games. Only one player has hit more in that same number — Carlos Beltran, who had 11.
The Rangers raced out of the dugout for the celebration. Cruz, coming down the third-base line, rolled his helmet like a bowling ball to clear a path. A teammate sprayed him with water just as he crossed the plate. Andres Blanco nailed him with a shaving-cream pie before he left the field. Others tossed baby powder, beer and water at Cruz in the clubhouse.
To think, Cruz batted only .190 with one home run in 42 at-bats after returning from a strained left hamstring on Sept. 14, and then went 1-for-15 in the ALDS against the Rays.
Still, this is a player who has averaged 28 homers the past three seasons despite appearing in an average of only 120 games.
When Cruz gets hot, he’s hot. And suddenly, he’s hot again.
“We said it a couple of days ago — it was just a matter of time before Nelly got going,” Young said. “We really, truly do not get concerned about any of our guys offensively.”
With someone like Cruz batting seventh, why should they?
Andrus: “I don’t even know how it got into my glove”
As the field reporter on Monday, I was positioned near the far end of the Rangers’ dugout, where several of the team’s Latin players — Blanco, Yorvit Torrealba, Esteban German — were sitting. The group erupted with joy after Andrus made his catch in the ninth. And when Andrus returned to the dugout, he was the most animated of all.
The Rangers’ closer, Neftali Feliz, had just entered the game with two outs. Washington had elected to walk Miguel Cabrera intentionally and load the bases for Victor Martinez. Feliz jammed Martinez on a 2-2 fastball, and Martinez popped the pitch up to shallow center.
Andrus, quickly sensing that the ball would be out of reach for Hamilton, sprinted into the outfield, his head turned toward the ball. But the ball was spinning wildly, as often happens when hitters get jammed.
“You don’t want to see it spinning when you’re looking for a pop fly,” Andrus said. “As soon as it hits your glove, it can jump right away. That’s why you saw me go to both hands.”
And still, the ball almost eluded him.
“It scared the heck out of me,” Beltre said. “He had a little snow cone — I saw a little white.”
Andrus pulled both his hands to his chest to complete the play, then laughed and smiled all the way back to the dugout. Once there, he gleefully recounted the play for his teammates. Feliz and Ogando were among those who stopped to congratulate him, grinning broadly.
“That was a tough play,” said Young, the Rangers’ former shortstop who is now mostly a DH. “That’s probably going to get overlooked through all the craziness.”
Not a chance.
Feldman: “I knew they’d keep running me out there”
It was easy to forget about Feldman, who won 17 games in 2009 but missed the first half of this season recovering from right knee surgery.
When the Rangers put him on waivers in July, their goal was for him to go unclaimed, accept a minor-league assignment and build his arm strength.
The risk was that another team would claim Feldman, but he had not pitched since the surgery and was owed nearly $9 million combined in 2011 and ’12.
Step one was easy — Feldman cleared waivers. But he foiled step two, invoking his service-time rights to reject the minor-league assignment.
The Rangers had to release him or activate him.
They activated him.
Feldman made 11 appearances the rest of the way, including two starts, finishing with a 3.94 ERA. His postseason role is simple: Be ready if a starter gets knocked out early.
“The minute you sit down and think you’re not going to get used, that’s usually when the phone rings,” Feldman said, smiling.
The phone rang early Monday; lefty Derek Holland lasted only 2-2/3 innings. Feldman, pitching for the first time in 10 days, entered with the Rangers trailing 3-2. He had no idea how long Washington intended to stick with him.
“I didn’t really think about that,” he said. “I knew that they would probably keep running me out there as long as I was doing a decent job. My main concern was just working quick, keeping the game where it was, giving us a chance.”
He did just that, allowing just one baserunner in 4-1/3 innings, saving a bullpen that ultimately would be extended anyway as the game went into extra innings.
The marathon lasted 4 hours, 25 minutes, featuring one twist after another.
“When I got done watching that game, I thought my beard was going to turn gray,” Feldman said.
Think of how the Tigers must have felt, facing an opponent that beats teams in so many different ways.