Even after watching it live, and watching it again, and again and again and again, it was hard to describe what Indians fans witnessed a year ago Saturday because it was something I had never seen in my lifetime.
With a swing and a drive, a mistimed jump, a wild sprint around the bases, a head first dive into the plate, and a rock star fist pump to the skies, Tyler Naquin cemented a place in Cleveland Indians history with an improbable walk-off inside-the-park homer against the Toronto Blue Jays to give the Tribe a 3-2 victory.
A year later, the Indians will send Trevor Bauer to the mound to start against the Kansas City Royals, just as he had on that surreal night against Toronto, but Naquin will not be with the team to remember the event. He instead will be in Columbus, more than two hours away from Progressive Field, where the magic and miracle occurred. A third place finish in the American League’s Rookie of the Year race at season’s end was not enough for him to maintain a spot with the Major League club this season, as he lasted less than two weeks with the Indians at the outset of the season. He has since been surpassed by top prospect Bradley Zimmer for the job in center field for the immediate future.
Naquin has played well in Columbus this season, hitting .309 with eleven doubles, three triples, nine RBI, and 42 RBI in 64 games, but lost a chunk of May and June to a lower back injury. Whether Naquin returns to the big league club as a September call-up and contributes anything over the final month of the season remains to be seen, but regardless, fans who witnessed his unbelievable homer and the ensuing “mob scene” at home plate will undoubtedly be able to recall that victory for many, many years into the future.
Just one night earlier, Naquin delivered a walk-off victory for the Tribe, securing a comeback win over the Chicago White Sox with his game-winning sacrifice fly. He would get his chance in the ninth the next night, but a well-pitched ball game between the Indians and the visiting Toronto Blue Jays needed to happen first to set the stage.
With Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James in attendance and legendary voice of the Tribe Tom Hamilton celebrating his 60th birthday, the Indians fell behind from the jump against Blue Jays left-hander Francisco Liriano. Toronto struck for two runs off of Bauer in the first inning when Russell Martin delivered a two-run souvenir to the bleachers in left with two down in the inning, driving in Michael Saunders, who had walked with one out.
Bauer was good the rest of the way, keeping the Jays off of the board and keeping base traffic to a minimum, allowing just five more runners to reach base in eight innings of work. He ended his night by striking out the side in the seventh and recording the first and final outs of the eighth in the same manner, but his teammates struggled to figure out Liriano, a former nemesis from his time with both the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox who was now back in the American League after a trade to Toronto from Pittsburgh.
After missing out on an opportunity with two runners on and only one out in the fifth, the Indians cut the Blue Jays’ lead in half in the sixth. Jason Kipnis started the rally with a single to right before moving to second on a passed ball and third on a fielding error. With two down in the inning, Mike Napoli singled to left, driving in Kipnis with the Indians’ first run of the night. After the scoring threat, the bats were back on silent mode, as only Kipnis would reach over the next couple of innings on a walk off of Jason Grilli.
Young Toronto closer Roberto Osuna entered the game for the ninth to secure the Blue Jays’ win and got off to a good start, retiring Carlos Santana on a pop up to Martin in foul territory for the first out.
Jose Ramirez, whose own heroics in the game often get lost in the story (just as his contributions to the ball club both last season and this one fail to get nearly the credit that they deserve), fell behind the hard-throwing righty, 0-2. His first swing of the at bat was perfect, however, as he lined the Osuna offering over the wall in right to tie the game at two.
Fans would barely have a chance to catch their breath before madness would take place at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. Naquin stepped to the plate for his second at bat of the night after striking out against Joaquin Benoit while pinch-hitting for Brandon Guyer in the top of the eighth. Osuna got him down in the count 1-2 before Naquin swung and sent a drive towards the wall in right. Saunders raced back and jumped at the wall, but could not make the catch. The ball ricocheted towards center field and Melvin Upton Jr., who eventually got to the ball but slipped. Naquin was not quick out of the batter’s box, initially in a slow home run trot before turning on the afterburners upon Saunders’ leap. He slowed some pulling into third, but third base coach Mike Sarbaugh waved him frantically towards home as Upton had fallen. Naquin sprinted to the plate and dove head first, beating the relay throw to Martin. He jumped up and threw his fist in the air in an ultimate act of celebration, already surrounded by his teammates, many of whom had already ran out of the dugout towards the plate in advance of the unlikely game-winning homer, one that far more resembled a Little League homer than the more traditional wall-clearing drives.
Naquin’s walk-off inside-the-parker was a historic one and if it felt like you had not seen one in your lifetime by an Indians player, you were right. It was nearly 100 years to the date since the team hit a game-winning homer that way, previously done on August 13, 1916, by Braggo Roth in a win against the St. Louis Browns. It was just the ninth inside-the-park home run hit in the history of Progressive Field and the first since Jhonny Peralta recorded one on July 18, 2000. Seven of those nine have come from Indians batters.
The homers from Ramirez and Naquin also made for a rare occurrence – it was the first time in the modern era of baseball that a game had ended on back-to-back home runs, with the latter of the two hits being a walk-off inside-the-parker.
It would be the Indians’ 70th win in 120 games of the 2016 season and extended the club’s lead to seven games over Detroit. It would not be their last encounter with Toronto, as the two clubs would wrap their final series of the regular season that weekend, only to meet again in the American League Championship Series, where the Indians dashed the Blue Jays’ World Series dreams by clinching the AL pennant in five games.
“I don’t’ even know what to say about that,” said Bauer of the dramatic ending. “That was one of the crazier finishes I’ve ever been a part of.”
Because some things never get old, a courtesy refresher:
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images