ARLINGTON, Tex. — With an infirm roster, a defiant manager and a miraculous closer, the Detroit Tigers pushed the Texas Rangers as far as they could Monday, until sunshine yielded to a starless night over Rangers Ballpark. They overcame injuries to two-thirds of their outfield, ignored the conventional wisdom that the Rangers had become a clear favorite and escaped a bases-loaded, no-out, ninth-inning jam. And suddenly, with one swing and a ball that nearly tore a hole in the sky, it ended.
The Rangers took command of the American League Championship Series with an epic, 7-3, 11-inning victory that came when Nelson Cruz launched the first walk-off grand slam in postseason history off Tigers reliever Ryan Perry. The Rangers lead the series, 2-0, as it shifts to Detroit, but after the tense game and heart-wrenching ending for the Tigers, two questions emerged: How much does Detroit have left? And who is stopping the Rangers?
For the players involved, the more urgent question was, What just happened? The Tigers led for the bulk of the game, until Cruz’s first home run tied it at 3 in the seventh inning. Both teams loaded the bases without scoring in the ninth. The Rangers’ bullpen pitched 81 / 3 innings, the first 41 / 3 from Scott Feldman, who allowed one hit and struck out four.
“I can honestly say that was the probably the coolest game I’ve ever been apart of,” Feldman said. “When I got done even watching that game, I thought my beard was going to turn gray.”
And that was the winning team. The Tigers played with one of their outfielders, Magglio Ordonez, out of the season and another, Delmon Young, back on the roster with an oblique injury after he’d been presumed out for the series. They found solace in how close they played the Rangers, in opportunities created but missed, and in the comfort of returning to Comerica Park on Tuesday night.
“That’s why I don’t think you’re going to see us panic,” starter Max Scherzer said. “The mind-set doesn’t change.”
Each team could have ended the game several times before the 11th, when the Rangers did. Michael Young led off against Perry with a sharp single to left, past the dive of third baseman Don Kelly, who had been playing on the line to prevent a double. Adrian Beltre ripped another single. With two on and no outs, Mike Napoli smacked a line drive to right-center field. Andy Dirks sprinted to his left, and the ball grazed off his glove.
The mistake gave Perry no margin for error: “He can’t pitch the guy the way he wants,” Dirks said.
It was the wrong guy. Last year, Cruz hit six home runs in the postseason, and already he had hit two in this series. Cruz missed the first two weeks of September with a left hamstring strain, and after he returned he hit .190. Even as he dropped to seventh in the Rangers’ lineup, though, he felt his swing coming back.
In the 11th, Cruz fell behind 0-1 and then crushed a foul ball into the upper deck. He had done the same before his homer in the seventh. “I know my hands are quick, and I can wait longer,” Cruz said.
Perry delivered one ball, then tried to throw a slider outside. “I didn’t try, obviously, to put the pitch where I did,” Perry said. “I just dropped it right in there.”
Cruz crushed it, high and deep down the left field line. He admired it at the plate for a few moments, but he knew right away it was fair. After he circled the bases, one teammate squirted water in his face.
“I saw it on TV last year, him hitting all those home runs in the playoffs,” Napoli said. “He’s doing it again this year.”
It was the apex of an incredible game, but either team could have won it in the ninth inning. The Tigers loaded the bases with two outs after closer Neftali Feliz intentionally walked Miguel Cabrera. Victor Martinez flared a popup to shallow center, weak contact and possible trouble.
Speedy shortstop Elvis Andrus chased the ball and stuck out his glove to catch it. He accidentally covered his glove with his throwing hand, and the ball popped out. Behind the plate, Napoli put his hands on his head. “I saw a little white,” he said later.
Without using his glove, Andrus somehow trapped the ball against his chest, averting disaster and ending the inning.
In the bottom of the ninth, Jose Valverde loaded the bases on six pitches, hitting Cruz with two on. As Cruz worked his way to his feet and jogged to first, Rangers Ballpark exploded. With his socks pulled high, his gut protruding and his nerves calm, the closer they call Papa Grande had the Rangers right where he wanted them.
David Murphy had the first chance to end the game, but he popped up to shallow left, too close for Beltre to tag. Mitch Moreland came next. Valverde threw a 2-2, 94-mph fastball. Moreland rolled it to first base, where Cabrera scooped the ball and fired home for one out. Catcher Alex Avila fired back to Cabrera. Standing off the base, he snared the ball and snapped a tag on Moreland. The celebration would have to wait.
“First, it’s a little bit of shock,” Young said. “Then you turn the page.”
The Rangers delivered on their next chance. In their clubhouse, they covered Cruz in baby powder and beer. On the other side, the Tigers solemnly packed their bags and responded to questions they didn’t want to answer, clinging to any hope they could.
“I don’t feel as good as Texas right now,” Tigers Manager Jim Leyland said. “But we’re playing.”