CLEVELAND (92.3 The Fan) – Jose Ramirez and Tyler Naquin hit back-to-back homers in the bottom of the ninth — and Naquin’s was of the inside-the-park, unbelievable variety — as the Cleveland Indians came from behind to beat the Toronto Blue Jays, 3-2.
This column features my takeaways from Friday’s game. If you want more baseball coverage, you can follow me on Twitter (@TJZuppe).
1. What was Tyler Naquin thinking as he came around third base in the bottom of the ninth?
“Keep running,” he said. “Don’t fall. I almost fell down there for a second. Just keep on running. Just keep on running. A hard slide. Beat the ball.”
Naquin clubbed the 1-2 offering from talented Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna deep to right field, just minutes after Jose Ramirez smacked a game-tying home run to nearly the identical spot. Right off the bat, it looked as if the rookie outfielder had got enough of the pitch to clear the fence.
His teammates agreed, jumping out of the dugout to get an even closer look at Naquin’s attempted heroics for the second straight night. They quickly had to contain themselves as the ball bounced high off the right field wall, just beyond the outstretched glove of Michael Saunders.
But the ball took a friendly hop for Cleveland, bouncing back toward center field were Melvin Upton Jr. was slow to provide some back up on the play. At the same time, Naquin had turned on the afterburners and was headed for third.
As Upton bent over to pick up the ball, he slipped and fell, and Naquin just kept running until he eventually dove on home plate head-first with the game-winning inside-the-park home run, immediately popping up to throw his rock fist at the sky.
“Just rockin’ out,” Naquin said. “That was a pretty cool moment, so I’m gonna get into it.”
2. Third base coach Mike Sarbaugh wasn’t originally going to send Naquin to the dish.
As the rookie turned and burned for third, it still looked like Upton would be able to get to the ball in plenty of time to keep Naquin from scoring. With one out in the inning, getting the 25-year-old thrown out at the dish would be less than ideal, so playing it safe was on Sarbaugh’s mind.
That was, until Upton took a spill.
“Initially, I thought it was out,” the third base coach said. “And then when it hit the wall, I saw that Upton was pretty far away from it backing up. And when he got to it, I thought we would have to stop him.
“But as soon as he fell, I thought we had a good chance of scoring. Just good job on Tyler’s part just making sure he kept running.”
And a large part of that possibility was created early in the sequence, even before ball hit off the right field wall.
“I was just thinking after I hit it, I took a couple of steps out of the box and just pictured it kicking off the wall,” Naquin said. “I said, ‘I have a chance to score if it kicks far enough.’ And sure enough, it did.”
3. Toward the end of the play, the only question was who would reach home plate first?
After Naquin initially hit the ball, nearly everyone in the Indians dugout thought the ball was gone. Several players jumped over or stepped around the railing to prepare for celebration. That was momentarily halted when the ball crashed high off the wall, and many scampered back into the dugout.
But as Naquin kept running, the players began to realize the young rookie was going to cross home plate all by himself — without the benefit of leaving the yard. That’s when Francisco Lindor, Mike Napoli and Abraham Almonte rushed to meet Naquin at the dish.
“I think Nap was just about trying to grab me before I even slid,” Naquin said. “He was pretty much meeting me at home plate.”
“When Naquin hit his, I think we all got so excited, we thought it was going out and when it hit the wall, I was up at the warning track, so I went back in the dugout,” manager Terry Francona said. “I tell you what, he hustled his ass off. It seemed like he was picking up speed.”
And as for taking back-to-back walk-off beatings — the rookie outfielder won Thursday’s game on a walk-off sacrifice fly to center — Naquin doesn’t mind.
“I love ’em,” he said. “Keep those coming”
But then he thought about it some more: “I’d actually like to win by five or 10 so we don’t have to do that.”
4. While Naquin got all the love, it was Jose Ramirez that really came up with the clutch blast.
Of course, not that Ramirez’s ability to come through when he club needed him much was a surprise, considering the 23-year-old switch-hitter has been producing for Cleveland all season long.
But it was his solo homer on an 0-1 delivery from Osuna in the bottom of the ninth — just one batter ahead of Naquin — that tied the game and set the stage for the Tribe’s dramatics.
And honestly, the fact that it was Ramirez and Naquin playing the role of hero on Friday night was a shock to no one. It has been the steady of play of both young players making the absence of Michael Brantley tolerable throughout the campaign.
In a lot of ways, Ramirez has provided every bit of the production the club was expecting to get from Brantley in 2016.
“He’s been, from day one, he’s been as important, probably, as anybody here,” Francona said. “Especially with Brantley out and the last three or four weeks, he’s really got big hits and he’s important for us. So versatile. Switch-hitter.
“He’s been hitting the ball out of the ballpark, he steals a base, he doesn’t strike out. There’s a lot to like.”
The solo bomb to right off Osuna was Ramirez’s ninth round-tripper of the season, and the switch-hitter is now batting .388 with nine doubles, 21 runs scored and 13 RBI over the past 25 games.
5. All of the ninth-inning drama was made possible by Trevor Bauer, who logged eight outstanding innings.
Bauer struck out a career high 13 batters in the victory, limiting the Jays to just two runs on five hits, walking two and really only making one mistake on Friday, yielding a two-run, first-inning homer to Russell Martin.
The righty’s command of his two-seamer and curveball weren’t just critical to Friday night’s success, but they’ve really helped him get back on track over his last three starts.
Bauer said he thrived off of the playoff-like atmosphere at the ballpark, featuring a crowd that seemed to be split right down the middle between Tribe and Jays fans.
“I’m an ultra-competitive guy,” he said. “I love the adrenaline rush you get from it. I love going out there and competing and being in high-stakes games like that. It was fun.
“That’s why I play baseball. I don’t play for anything else but for to go out there and compete in games like that and to win games like that like we did as a team tonight. That was perfect.”
6. Cleveland’s impressive comeback victory came with another come-from-behind artist watching every pitch.
Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James was in the house, watching Friday’s game from a suite at Progressive Field. And no, he wasn’t sporting a New York Yankees hat.
James has seen some crazy deficits erased over his incredible NBA career — including overcoming a 3-1 hole in the NBA Finals to bring home Cleveland’s first professional championship in 52 years.
Did you guys hear about that?
After the game, LeBron gave the Indians props for their thrilling, improbable and jaw-dropping victory.