CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Indians provided a piece of baseball history Monday night, as Jason Giambi became the oldest player to win a game with a walk-off home run.
Giambi — who is 42 years and 202 days of age — broke the record previously held by Hank Aaron by 45 days.
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His game-winner was a no-doubt blast, well up in the trees and more than 400 feet just to the right field side of center. Alejandro De Aza’s climb of the wall in center was futile, and Vinnie Pestano’s spider climb of the bullpen fence to De Aza’s left summed up the celebration, which of course continued at home plate.
“There’s nothing more special in this game than to do that and help the ballclub win after they battled so well,” Giambi said. “It’s incredible just to contribute.”
“It was electric, man,” Nick Swisher said. “It was orgasmic, that’s what it was.”
Which is one way to put it.
Another was the reaction of Giambi as he jumped into the circle of teammates, after he had flipped his bat out of the box and pumped his fist just before first base. After leaving the pile, Giambi accepted a hug from manager Terry Francona, then lifted Francona off the ground.
“It was fun,” Francona said, “until it hurt.”
His teammates showed little respect for age, though, as Swisher and Mike Aviles went into the dugout and grabbed the water jug, bringing it on the field to douse Giambi as he waited for a postgame interview.
“I might catch pneumonia,” Giambi said. “I’m a little too old to be dunked with cold water. … No … I love it.”
Giambi’s home run came as he pinch hit for Mark Reynolds to lead off the ninth. It came after Michael Brantley had snagged a hard-hit line drive over his shoulder to end the eighth and keep Chicago from scoring. Giambi fouled off the first pitch from Ramon Troncosco, then took a ball. The third pitch was a slider that didn’t slide much and wound up high and in the swing zone.
“I wasn’t trying to do too much,” Giambi said. “I was just trying to see it and hit it. I got a pitch up in the strike zone and ended up catching up to it.”
“As soon as the ball left his bat, there was no doubt,” Swisher said, adding it took off “like a golf ball.”
Giambi’s value to the Indians goes far beyond his 124 at-bats and .194 batting average.
He is the team’s glue, its leader. He’s the guy acquired as much for leadership as his ability to hit as the Indians sought players who could keep them from second-half slides that ruined the previous two seasons.
It has been Giambi who has called the players together more than once this season for a heart to heart, most recently after the Indians had lost badly in the first two games of a four-game series against Detroit. Since his come-to-Jason moment, the Indians have won 12 of 18.
“You look at his run production for at-bats, it’s tremendous,” Francona said. “What he does before he steps in the batter’s box, you can’t put a price on it. You can write whatever you want good and you can fill up a book. I keep trying to say how I feel about him, and I just don’t feel like I ever quite get there. That’s how valuable I think he is.”
In his 124 at-bats, Giambi has seven home runs, and 24 RBI, which figures to an RBI every 5.17 at-bats. Jason Kipnis leads the Indians with 63 RBI, one every 5.71 at-bats.
It sounds almost absurd to hear the adulation the Indians have a for a guy hitting below .200, but the feelings are real.
“The guy is still built like a Greek god,” Swisher said. “He can still hit the ball a quarter mile. Not only that, he’s done so well for everybody in this locker room.”
The walk-off win was the eighth of the Indians season, four by home runs, two in the last four games. It put Cleveland one-half game behind Baltimore in the wild card chase, and 2 1/2 behind Detroit in the division.
The Indians have won five in a row since returning home from a 2-4 road trip, and they did it the way they have to to win. Rich Hill pitched to one hitter and got Adam Dunn looking with a runner on third in the eighth. In the ninth, Michael Bourn backed up a misplay by Ryan Raburn to keep Dayan Viciedo from an inside-the-park home run. Brantley then chased down Gordon Beckham’s blast to left.
It set up Giambi’s blast, which taken with the other plays showed how the Indians win, and when they are at their best.
“We made some mistakes, but it didn’t cost us the ballgame,” Francona said. “Because guys picked each other up.”
In the end, it was the manager who was picked up — by the old man.
“That’s what keeps you coming back, every single year,” Giambi said. “That moment. Winning a game and celebrating as a ballclub.”