There is nothing else in baseball like the dramatic homer. The blast off a slugger's bat that tilts a game in sudden fashion for what our dearly departed friend Ernie Harwell might call "instant runs".
We were reminded of this again last Thursday as the Tigers were looking like a sure bet to go down in flames to the Oakland Athletics and cap off a 4-game A's sweep in the Motor City. But Torii Hunter, who had entered the game in the 7th inning with a very forgettable at-bat with runners on base, stepped up against A's Closer Grant Balfour and ended up launching a shot in the Comerica Park sky that turned disaster into jubilation in a shocking instant.
That homer got me to thinking the subsequent days about "The Big Bang Query"...which is, "where does Hunter's shot rank among the most crucial homers hit by the Detroit Tigers this season?"
This required painstaking research (well...not really) with a detailed rubric of criteria (no...there was no rubric...I hate even typing the word "rubric") for the Big Bang Committee to consider. (actually there was no committee either...Kurt and Big Al were busy podcasting and Phil Coke's Brain was still pouting that the real Phil was in Toledo)
The only factors in play were that I had to remember the homer right off the bat as being HUGE in deciding a game for the Tigers. The homers had to come in a victory...so, yes, Miguel Cabrera's homers against legendary Mariano Rivera were epic...and I mean epic...but they were in games the Tigers ultimately lost so they're out. Cabrera's three-homer game in Texas was also a blast in every sense of the word...except the final score that night tilted to the Rangers as well. Also the games had to be close and hopefully the blast came kind of late to either tie the game or swing the lead to Detroit. Jhonny Peralta's Grand Slam against the Phillies was neat...but it simply widened an already sizable lead. That one is out.
So without further ado and with no help from science, Baseball-Reference, Grantland Rice, or even Jim Price...here are the Top 7 Most Crucial Detroit Tigers Homers (so far) in 2013:
7. Alex Avila, Friday May 3rd at Houston
"Houston, we have a problem."-- Jim Lovell, Apollo 13
Avila's blast in Houston early this season was a 9th inning two run round-tripper that rescued the Tigers as they were two outs from defeat at the hand's of the woeful Astros. The Astros currently are looking like an okay bet to at least win 50-games this season but in the early weeks of the season some thought they would challenge for the worst record of all time. These were games that seemed like an early chance for the Tigers to bank some cheap wins and one was about to slip by the wayside.
Bud Norris was still with Houston on this night and he was effective, allowing only 5 hits and 2 runs through 7 innings. The Astros managed to plate three versus Doug Fister and took the lead to the ninth. (A bonus for Avila comes from the fun fact that the pitcher who took over in the ninth inning was a guy who would become a Tiger a few weeks in the future, Jose Veras.) Don Kelly led off with a walk however and one batter later Avila strode to the plate and worked a 3-1 count before launching a massive blast into the right-center field stands to rescue a game that was quickly circling the drain.
6. Don Kelly, Tuesday August 6th at Cleveland
"I'm the Master(son) of my domain"-- Jerry Seinfeld
The 4-game series in Cleveland was a big match up in early August and the night before the Tribe had lost in heart-breaking fashion (as we'll cover in a moment) and were looking to rebound behind the efforts of Justin Masterson. Masterson was outdueling Justin Verlander on this night as they entered the top of the 5th with a 1-0 Tribe lead.
Verlander was looking very Ace-like in this game...something that wasn't happening a lot prior to that night and only sporadically since. But a Ryan Raburn's RBI groundout had given Masterson a small lead to protect. Masterson, for his part, was looking fairly dominant through the first innings. However it all spiraled violently out of control in the 5th. Two hit batsmen, a single, and an RBI double by Cabrera had given the Tigers a 2-1 lead with two out and two in the inning. The beloved Tigers utilityman Don Kelly stepped up to the plate sporting a .246 batting average but also coming armed with bizarrely amazing numbers against Masterson. Good enough that Jim Leyland was going to play Kelly if he had his arm in a sling most likely. Kelly did not disappoint. One might swing of the bat deposited the ball in the right-field stands to create space for the Tigers. A 5-1 lead was all they'd need that night and the Tigers were one step closer to ultimately sweeping that huge series.
5. Miguel Cabrera, Wednesday August 7th at Cleveland
"Throw that (crap) again, Meat. Throw that weak-ass (crap) again."-- Crash Davis, Bull Durham
One night after Kelly's heroics it was Cabrera's turn to hit a dinger that would sway a game toward the Tigers. On this night Tribe rookie hurler Danny Salazar was dominating the Tigers and pitched into the 8th inning. He had struck out 10 Tigers while walking only 1. He had improbably whiffed the mighty Cabrera the first three times they matched up on the evening. Manager Terry Francona let Salazar stare down Cabrera a fourth time as they looked to protect a 3-2 lead in the 8th. Mistake. Cabrera did what Cabrera does. He took Salazar's best heater and drove a tremendous drive to the opposite field for a two run shot to give the Tigers the lead. The Tribe would tie the game but the Tigers would ultimately win the game in the game in the 14th. This game might be the one that truly sucked the life out of the Tribe this season and it was Cabrera's homer that pulled the game from the fire pit.
4. Jhonny Peralta, Thursday June 20th versus Boston
"I wish I'd never been born at all..."--George Bailey (great granddad of Andrew Bailey), It's a Wonderful Life
The first walk-off dinger on the list. John Lackey pitched a dandy for the BoSox but Jose Alvarez and Luke Putkonen managed to keep the Sawx in check as well. The game was tied 2-2 in the 8th when Phil Coke walked two batters and allowed David Ortiz to single in a run before even recording an out. The game was slipping away. Then, just as suddenly, the Sox brought on Andrew Bailey to attempt to close it out and Bailey followed Coke-Model...he retired nobody either. He walked Victor Martinez and the allowed a no-doubt blast to Jhonny Peralta to send the Tigers home as victors in a game that set the tone for Detroit to take 3 out of 4 games over that weekend series.
3. Alex Avila, Monday August 5th at Cleveland
"And (Avila) crushes one toward South America!"--Harry Doyle, Major League
This is Avila's second nod on this list and the third dinger from the Cleveland series in early August where the Tigers swept and gained control of the division.
In Game 1 of the series however it wasn't looking like the Tigers were going to gain control of anything. Corey Kluber, pitching into the 8th innning, was throwing shutout baseball at the Tigers and outdueling Anibal Sanchez (who allowed 2 ER in 7 IP). The game looked as though a tense and agonizing week might be on tap for the Detroit crew.
But Tribe Closer Chris Perez took the hill precisely one year to the day from his epic blowup in Detroit that had culminated with a preposterous Miguel Cabrera walk-off homer. Certainly that couldn't happen again? Well....
A Prince Fielder double started things off and Victor Martinez would single him in to cut the Tribe's lead to 2-1. Andy Dirks drew a walk and into the box stepped Alex Avila. Avila's year has been filled with offensive struggles and several injuries. But a rough year can hold memorable moments. Avila's blast in Houston was already covered and he's had a big two-run double in a 2-1 victory over Cole Hamels this year as well. Neither of those moments were as big as the blast he unleashed on Perez on this night however. Avila powered an opposite field moonshot over the tall wall in left-center for a three run homer and a 4-2 Tigers lead they would hold in the ninth. The series was suddenly 1-0 in the Tigers favor when a few moments before it looked like a sure loss.
2. Torii Hunter, Thursday August 29 versus Oakland
"Just when I thought I was out....they pull me back in!"--Micheal Corleone, Godfather 3
The first place Tigers had just spent three frustrating days watching their vaunted pitching rotation get shellacked by the A's. But Max Scherzer and his shiny 19-1 record was taking the mound on Thursday afternoon. Surely Scherzer would restore order and hold the A's hot bats in check to get the Tigers back on beam...ummmm...no. That didn't happen. The A's kept hitting everything and drove Scherzer to the showers after 5 laborious innings. It looked for all the world that another game was about to be lost and an improbable home sweep was at hand.
But the Tigers hung around. Trailing 6-1 in the 6th inning, they managed to plate two runs on a Fielder solo shot and a Ramon Santiago single. This kept the Tigers within striking distance.
The score remained 6-3 in the 9th and the A's summoned star Closer Grant Balfour to the mound. As so often happens when the roof caves in, the modest base on balls started the problem as Balfour issued Ball-four to Austin Jackson. Balfour recovered to retire Dirks and Avila but then walked Fielder. Martinez muscled a single to center while behind in the count to plate single and set the stage for Torii Hunter. Hunter has been a major addition to the Tigers and filled the hole that the Tigers had in right-field during the decline stage of Magglio Ordonez and the lamentable Brennan Boesch Era. This at-bat would bring about his finest hour as a Tiger to this point. Hunter battled Balfour and got a pitch he could handle and handle it he did. A long blast into the left-centerfield bullpen to bring about pandemonium in Detroit. A team that was nearing it's absolute lowest of lows on the season was suddenly recharged during an exhilarating moment brought about by Hunter.
1. Miguel Cabrera, Saturday August 17th versus Kansas City
"If you come at the King...you best not miss"--Omar Little, The Wire
The Kansas City Royals were probably the hottest team in baseball in the weeks prior to their 5-game visit into Detroit. Only the Tigers themselves had been equally as hot and kept the Royals from cutting deep into the division lead. This 5-game series was KC's chance to take a bite of the Tigers and truly get into the mix for the AL Central crown.
The Tigers took Game 1 but then the Royals pitching staff took over and held the Tigers to one measly run and swept a Friday doubleheader at Comerica. The alarm bell was going off...the Royals meant business and Saturday's game seemed pretty important.
Simply put, this was a helluva baseball game. Its the reason we are discussing it an "#1" on this list. A see-saw battle the whole night with the Tigers taking three different leads only to have the Royals battle back to tie the score. Salvador Perez tied it in the top of 7th with a solo shot only to have Fielder answer back with a missile into the stands of his own in the bottom half to take another lead.
Jose Veras then coughed up the tying run in the 8th but showed his mettle by pitching out of a tight jam to keep the game tied. Joaquin Benoit pitched a solid top half of the 9th and set the stage for.....
Aaron Crow entered the game hoping to keep the game tied. Unfortunately for him the BBOE (Best Batter on Earth) happened to be due up. You could call it "battle" I suppose...it did last 5 pitches. But as the quote from Mr. Little above notes...you are in trouble if you mess with the best. Cabrera smashed a slicing drive over the wall in right-field for the game winner. It was simply another moment for Miguel Cabrera to prove he's simply on another plane from his contemporaries. He's competing against history every bit as much as he's competing against the AL Central and MLB.
The Royals came at the Kings with their best shot that weekend. They missed. Cabrera stuck the dagger in.
So...there's my list. All great moments. Did I miss one or two that you would include? Put them in the comments. We also might be in store for more great moments in September and, of course we hope, October.