Walk-off blast into postseason a rare feat
Reds' Bruce only fifth to clinch with game-ending home run
Exactly where Jay Bruce's walk-off home run Tuesday night takes the Reds, or Bruce for that matter, remains to be seen.
What is known already is how rare it is to get into the postseason by way of a walk-off homer, and what became of the other walk-off heroes and their teams.
Bruce's clout, which clinched the Reds' first trip to the postseason since 1995, was just the fifth game-ending home run to send a team to the postseason in Major League history. It stands on the list alongside the legendary "Shot Heard 'Round the World" by the Giants' Bobby Thomson -- the most famous of them all -- in the annals of the game's biggest single swings that flip the calendar, even if figuratively, to October.
One of Henry Aaron's 755 career homers did the trick for the Braves in 1957, and the feat didn't happen again until Alfonso Soriano's first career homer clinched a postseason berth for the Yankees in 1999. The next one to do it was Steve Finley for the Dodgers in 2004, and the next after that was Bruce, who homered in the bottom of the ninth against Houston's Tim Byrdak to give the Reds a 3-2 victory.
"Jay will remember that the rest of his life -- until he does something else dramatic, hopefully, in the playoffs to follow," Reds manager Dusty Baker said during the celebration Tuesday.
Of course, that remains to be seen, as the Reds and Bruce have more of their 2010 story to write.
But the rest are history, so here's a look back at the walk-off tickets to the postseason prior to Bruce's shot Tuesday night, and what became of the teams and players involved.
Bobby Thomson, Giants vs. Dodgers
Oct. 3, 1951
What happened when Thomson connected on a fastball from Dodgers right-hander Ralph Branca can only be said appropriately in the words of Hall of Fame announcer Russ Hodges:
"The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!"
Baseball's most celebrated home run echoed through fans' minds again earlier this summer when Thomson, the "Flying Scot," died at age 86. In 1951, when the two New York rivals played a best-of-three tiebreaker series to decide the National League champion, Thomson was a few weeks shy of his 28th birthday. In his fifth full season of what would be a 15-year career with three All-Star appearances, he led the Giants in homers with 32 that season, including "The Shot."
With runners on second and third and future Hall of Famer Willie Mays waiting on deck, Thomson sent an 0-and-1 pitch into the bleachers at the Polo Grounds, and propelled himself into history.
Thomson didn't have much of a World Series after the mega-moment. He went 5-for-21 with a double and two RBIs as the Yankees beat the Giants in six games.
Thomson was traded to the Milwaukee Braves in 1954, returned to the Giants three years later and closed out his career in 1960 with the Red Sox and Orioles. It was with the Braves in '54 when Thomson's Spring Training injury opened the door for a future Hall of Famer who went on to deliver a walk-off pennant-winner of his own.
Hank Aaron, Braves vs. Cardinals
Sept. 23, 1957
The second walk-off ticket to October wasn't nearly as dramatic as Thomson's. But perhaps a torch was passed when Aaron first earned a spot on the Braves' roster following Thomson's injury in Spring Training 1954, then quickly established himself as an All-Star.
For the first time in 1957, Aaron led the National League in both home runs, with 44, and RBIs, with 132. He'd eventually lay claim to the all-time record in both categories, his 755 standing on top for 31 years before being surpassed by Barry Bonds' 762, but the RBI mark of 2,297 still holding strong.
It was Aaron's 43rd homer of the season that earned the Braves the NL pennant -- and Milwaukee its first trip to the World Series, just five years after the Braves arrived from Boston. With the Braves leading the Cardinals by five games with six to play, the two teams opened up a three-game set in Milwaukee by going into extra innings.
With two outs in the 11th, Aaron smacked a pitch from Billy Muffett, in his third inning of work, deep to center field for a two-run shot that won the game, 4-2, clinched the pennant for the Braves and would be a moment difficult to top for Aaron -- one he called the "most important" of his career, even ahead of his 715th career homer to pass Babe Ruth in 1974.
"I remember my first thought when that ball went over the fence was about Bobby Thomson's homer in 1951," Aaron said in a 2006 Baseball Digest article. "That always was my idea of the most important homer. Now I'd hit one myself. That was my brightest hour."
That said, it's clear that an 11th-inning walk-off homer in 1957, while beyond his wildest dreams at the time and obviously special to him, was merely one tile on the brilliant mosaic that has been Aaron's career in baseball. From his Hall of Fame playing career to his longstanding role as an executive, Aaron went on to become one of the greatest ambassadors the game has ever known.
Alfonso Soriano, Yankees vs. Devil Rays
Sept. 24, 1999
This could go down as the biggest homer by a player who entered the game as a pinch-runner ... for his first career homer and first career hit ... just eight days after his Major League debut.
Soriano had all that with the game-winner against Tampa Bay that clinched a postseason berth for the defending World Series champions. Soriano entered the game as a pinch-runner for designated hitter Chili Davis in the ninth inning, promptly being forced out on a grounder to second base. But he was there to lead off the bottom of the 11th with a homer off lefty Norm Charlton -- even if he wasn't there on the playoff roster when the Yankees claimed their second of three straight World Series titles.
Two years later, in his first full Major League season, Soriano had 18 homers and 43 steals while finishing third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting, behind Ichiro Suzuki and CC Sabathia. Five years later, Soriano was traded to the Rangers in the Alex Rodriguez deal following two All-Star seasons, including a 2002 campaign in which he had 39 homers and 41 steals. After two All-Star but enigmatic seasons in Texas, Soriano spent a season with the Nationals before signing an eight-year contract with the Cubs.
After 314 homers in more than a decade in the Majors, it's still hard to top his first.
Steve Finley, Dodgers vs. Giants
Oct. 2, 2004
The "Shot Heard Round the World" wasn't the last time the Giants had stuck it to the Dodgers. There was Joe Morgan's homer in 1982 that eliminated the Dodgers on the season's final day, and Brian Johnson's in '97 that sent the Giants past the Dodgers toward the NL West title.
Finley exacted some revenge for Branca and Co. with his walk-off grand slam, but he had a lot of help in a remarkable seven-run ninth inning that led the Dodgers to a 7-4 win. Punctuated by Finley's slam off lefty Wayne Franklin, the win clinched the Dodgers' first NL West title since 1995 and put the Giants on the cusp of being eliminated from postseason play, which they were on the final day.
Finley had been traded to the Dodgers that summer from Arizona, where he'd been part of the D-backs' historic 2001 World Series victory. That followed a stint with the Padres, who acquired him along with Ken Caminiti in a 12-player trade in December 1995 and went to the World Series with him in 1998.
Alas, the Dodgers would not ride Finley's slam much further, losing out in four games in the Division Series to the eventual NL-champion Cardinals -- the one victory coming on Lima Time, when the late Jose Lima pitched a Game 3 gem at Dodger Stadium.
Finley signed with the Angels the next offseason and finished his tour of the NL West by playing for the Giants and finally the Rockies in 2007. He was released before they made their miracle run to the World Series.
But the image of Finley raising his hands in the air to begin a walk-off celebration -- and the Dodgers' walk into the playoffs -- remains part of baseball history.
As will Bruce's, wherever it may lead.
John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.