Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz hit back-to-back home runs off St. Louis’ Lance Lynn to open the top of the seventh inning in Busch Stadium. This gave the Texas Rangers a 6-4 lead in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series.
The lead was 7-5 entering the bottom of the ninth, and closer Neftali Feliz came out of the bullpen to finish it. If he did so, this would be the first World Series championship for the Rangers and the state of Texas.
Thad Levine was the Rangers assistant general manager, sitting with team President Nolan Ryan and General Manager Jon Daniels.
“We were there with our wives, sitting behind third base and left field,” Levine said. “It was a long way to the right-field wall. For an instant, we were all hoping, maybe praying that Nelson had caught it.”
Feliz had struck out two Cardinals, and allowed a double to Albert Pujols and a walk to Lance Berkman. David Freese, suddenly a righthanded version of Stan Musial for the Cardinals that October, hit a 1-2 pitch toward Cruz in right field.
Immediately the impression was Cruz would retreat and catch it, but he wasn’t playing “no-doubles” deep and there was a slight pause before he started his retreat. Cruz was zeroed in on the ball and almost drifting, and you still thought it would be caught, but then he had to make a lunge with the glove on his left hand and the ball was past Cruz, hitting low on the wall and caroming away.
The TV cameras were quick to focus on a somber Ryan, the most revered baseball figure in the history of Texas. Close by was Levine, now the Twins general manager.
“We saw the ball carom away and we knew the game was tied,” Levine said. “It was sheer pain.”
The Rangers took another two-run lead in the 10th on Josh Hamilton’s home run, blew it again when manager Ron Washington went with lefthander Darren Oliver rather than giving Feliz another shot, and then lost 10-9 on Freese’s leadoff home run off Mark Lowe in the bottom of the 11th.
To no one’s surprise, after a loss like that, the Rangers were beaten 6-2 one night later in Game 7.
The media focus was on Freese’s triple more than his winning home run. Cruz took the heat in the Rangers clubhouse. He thought he had it, and if he had it to do over again, he would have played deeper.
“He didn’t shy away from the butchered fly ball; he took responsibility,” Gerry Fraley, an outstanding baseball writer for the Dallas Morning News, offered in a text.
Five years later, Cruz told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: “As soon as he hits it, I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got it. I’ve got it.’ It just kept going. Maybe we were supposed to be playing no-doubles, closer to the wall …”
Fraley offered a succinct report on Cruz as a presence on a team: “The best. Seriously. And, he’ll hit 40 home runs there.”
Bob Dutton covered Cruz as the Mariners beat writer for the Tacoma News Tribune. His review: “Great stand-up guy. Powerful, but will also dial it down on occasion when a single works. Streaky hitter. Will look like a swinging gate for a stretch and then hit everything in sight. Has to work hard to avoid hamstring and quad injuries.
“Really, one of my all-time favorites to deal with.”
All right, dear readers, you might not care about that, but it helps in a clubhouse — and with 162 games, behind-the-scenes chemistry can be more important in Major League Baseball than in any athletic activity.
The Twins saw in Torii Hunter’s swan song season that personality, production and responsibility can be an excellent combination. Torii turned 40 in July 2015, the season the club went from 70 wins to 83 (and then an all-time-Twins-worst 59 without him in 2016).
Cruz will turn 39 on July 1. He has averaged 41 home runs and 104 RBI in his past five seasons. He isn’t unflawed: Cruz didn’t test positive for performance-enhancing drugs, but he was mentioned in the Biogenesis scandal and accepted a 50-game suspension to open the 2013 season.
Baseball and now the Twins have moved forward with Cruz. “He’s a very charismatic person, and a hard, hard worker,” Levine said. “If we get this deal done … we’ve only been here a little over two years, but I’m wondering if Miguel [Sano] has ever had another player from the Dominican who can be as helpful as Nelson has a chance to be with him.”
For sure, Cruz can relay to Sano that there still is plenty of time to become a consistent power hitter. At age 25, Cruz did not yet have an at-bat in the big leagues, and he now has 360 home runs and 1,011 RBI.
And Sano still will be 25 when the 2019 schedule opens March 28 at Target Field.