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10/13/11 12:39 AM ET
Extra, extra: Cruz slugs way into playoff history
By Barry M. Bloom / MLB.com
DETROIT -- The Rangers are on the verge of clinching their second consecutive American League pennant, and on Wednesday night manager Ron Washington probably expressed the feelings of an entire organization in four short words. "Thank you, Nelson Cruz," he said. Cruz continued to be a one-man Detroit wrecking crew, crushing an 11th-inning, three-run homer off Tigers closer Jose Valverde into the depths of Comerica Park and throwing a one-hop strike to catcher Mike Napoli in the eighth inning to nail Miguel Cabrera and the potential winning run at the plate. The Rangers won a thrilling Game 4, 7-3, that took four hours to play after a rain delay of two hours and 13 minutes to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven AL Championship Series. They can wrap up the second pennant in franchise history by defeating Justin Verlander and the Tigers in Game 5 on Thursday at 3:19 p.m. CT. Either the Cardinals or the Brewers await in the World Series. Talk about firsts. Coupled with Cruz's walk-off grand slam that ended Game 2 in the 11th inning at Rangers Ballpark on Monday, he became the first player in Major League Baseball's postseason history to hit two extra-inning homers in the same series. The walk-off granny, of course, was also the first time that's ever happened in postseason history. Cruz now has four homers and nine RBIs in this series, coming off a complete power 0-fer and a 1-for-15 performance in the Rangers' four-game victory over the Rays in their AL Division Series. "Thanks to God because he gave me the chance to perform in those situations," Cruz said. "People ask me if it's that easy. It's not easy. I guess if you can take good swings results are going to come." It's not as if Cruz hasn't done this before. Last postseason as the Rangers ascended to the World Series for the first time and lost in five games to the Giants, Cruz amassed six homers and 11 RBIs in 16 playoff games. Cruz's only homer of the World Series came in Game 5 and accounted for his club's only run in a series-ending 3-1 loss. The circumstances are a little different this year. Cruz missed the first few weeks of September with a strained left hamstring and is just rounding into shape. That could account for his anemic production in the ALDS and the fact that his .357 batting average in this round only raises his postseason average to .207. Coming back off the disabled list and rejoining the team was rough for Cruz, said teammate and catcher Napoli, who took the one-hop throw from him on a Delmon Young fly ball to medium right field and then stood his ground to double off Cabrera at the plate. "Nellie has done a great job for us," Napoli said. "He had a tough situation when he was hurt, came back and didn't have any rehab assignment. He's been finding his swing and getting his timing down. He's been huge for us." Napoli had the 11th-inning single off Valverde that gave the Rangers a 4-3 lead, coming just after Tigers manager Jim Leyland opted to intentionally walk Adrian Beltre with a runner on second and one out, essentially to set up a possible double play. Cruz then pickled Valverde's next pitch -- a 94 mph four-seam fastball -- sending it deep to left-center, ending matters. "You can't make a mistake against these guys," said Valverde, who took the loss. "I threw my best pitch and he got it. There's really nothing you can do." Leyland had only the highest praise for Valverde, who has finished three of the four games in this series and is pitching on "fumes and heart." Leyland has also been saying throughout the first two rounds of the postseason that great players rise to the occasion, like his own Cabrera and Victor Martinez. Cruz certainly is among that group. "It's been an absolutely tremendous series," Leyland said. "That's the way it is. It's playoff baseball. [Cruz] is a great player and they're a real good team -- defending champions. And so far they've gotten the best of us." And as Washington said, thanks to Cruz, primarily. "Today we certainly needed what he gave us," Washington said. "For you guys, who haven't seen Nelson every day, he's capable of doing exactly what he's doing. I'm just happy that we as the Texas Rangers are reaping the benefit of it."
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.