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10/10/11 11:04 PM ET
Tense ninth-inning escapes packed with drama
Potential game-winning rallies foiled by outstanding plays
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
ARLINGTON -- This taut, thrill-packed and breathless postseason was faithfully captured in 15 wacky minutes of suspense during the late stages of Monday's Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. All the key plays, missed opportunities and curious managerial decisions from Phoenix to Philadelphia converged in the Texas twilight during a ninth inning that was instantly sure to haunt the eventual loser -- which became Detroit when Nelson Cruz's 11th-inning walk-off grand slam gave the Rangers a 7-3 win and a 2-0 ALCS lead. That ninth was like a Cliff's Notes window into this no-margin-for-error October. Like the rides across the street from Rangers Ballpark, this roller coaster began smoothly in the top of the ninth: Alexi Ogando retired the first two men, giving the noted Tigers tamer five consecutive outs since his entrance at the beginning of the eighth. Ramon Santiago, one of the few Detroit batters with a positive track record (3-for-7) against Ogando, punched a hard opposite-field single to left. With the left-handed-hitting Don Kelly due, Rangers manager Ron Washington strolled to the mound, toting a hook very unpopular with 51,227 fans, who booed as he waved to the bullpen for southpaw Michael Gonzalez. "Kelly doesn't hit very well against left-handers," Washington said. "Gonzo has been nails getting lefties out for us. [So I] decided to go there." Kelly took one ball and then punished Gonzalez's next pitch into the right-field corner. Off on the two-out swing, but not known as a flyer, Santiago, carrying the lead run, was waved to a halt at third base by coach Gene Lamont as the ball ricocheted sharply to Cruz in right field. "I'm running with my head down. Just have to pick up the coach," Santiago said. Asked whether Santiago had a chance to score a go-ahead run, Detroit manager Jim Leyland had a quick, "No." "The ball came back to [Cruz]. We were hoping it would knock around a bit," Leyland said, "but it didn't. That's kind of the luck of the draw." At the sound of the double, "I jumped out of the dugout," Washington said. The American League batting champ was coming up. "I could have let Gonzalez walk [Miguel] Cabrera. But I wasn't going to pitch to Cabrera." Washington again waved to the bullpen, but with his other arm -- for right-hander Neftali Feliz, who intentionally walked Cabrera to give switch-hitting Victor Martinez a bases-loaded shot from the left side. This was the vey same Martinez who led the AL in hitting with men in scoring position, and was 9-for-18 specifically with the bases loaded. "You had to pick your poison," Washington said. "When this series started, we said we would not give Cabrera a chance to swing the bat and beat us, so Martinez had to do it." Martinez almost did, even though Feliz's 2-and-2 pitch "jammed me pretty good." Even as his fisted blooper was parachuting into shallow left, Martinez could only hope that "it had a chance to fall in" because "[Elvis] Andrus is as good a shortstop as there is." Andrus has range, arm, speed. Turned out, he can also juggle: This particular ball squirmed out of his glove before he pressed it to his chest. "Most scariest play I've ever had. I don't know how I made it," Andrus said. "Yes, unfortunately I did see it," Martinez said. "Andrus has a lot of speed. I knew he could reach the ball. I saw it the whole way. Nothing you can do about it." Martinez's at-bat contributed to the Tigers' 1-for-12 with men in scoring position in this game, 2-for-19 in this ALCS, 13-for-60 in this postseason. "We haven't been able to come up with any big hits. That's really hard," Leyland said. "We've had some opportunities." In the bottom of the ninth, the Rangers got the exact same opportunity, the exact same outcome. The Tigers exhaled with the same relief -- this one provided by Jose Valverde, the perfect closer who on this night was anything but the perfect reliever. Adrian Beltre belted his first pitch for a double. So Valverde's next four pithes were intentional balls to Mike Napoli. That is correct: The Tigers went out of their way to face Cruz, who on his previous at-bat had tied the game at 3 with a majestic home run. "They've got so many good hitters," Leyland said. "We were hoping to get a ground ball and maybe get two quick outs to have a better shot to get out of the inning." Instead, Valverde's first pitch to Cruz was a "sinker that bore in and hit him" on the inside of the right wrist, loading the bases with none out. "In a situation like that, you have to have a lot of confidence in yourself and in the infielders around you," Valverde said. "That's why I've been so good this year: I have the best players behind me." The first play was relatively basic: On the first pitch to him, David Murphy lifted a fly into shallow left, too shallow for Beltre to even consider challenging Ryan Raburn's arm. The next play dropped the curtain on the smash ninth-inning show: Mitch Moreland sent a bouncer a few feet off the first-base line to Cabrera, whose throw home found Alex Avila's mitt a few inches before it would've hit dirt; Avila's return throw then sailed wide of first, but Cabrera gloved it and applied the inning-ending tag on Murphy's shoulder. Piece of cake. Let's go to the 10th. "That was the sinker. The sinker has worked well all year," Valverde said. "The sinker puts my guys to work."