There’s a new, unbeatable trend for home teams in the 2017 playoffs: play to a 1-1 tie through eight and a half innings, then walk off in thrilling, magical fashion in the bottom of the ninth.
José Altuve started it with a mad dash around the Minute Maid Park basepaths in Saturday’s ALCS Game 2, giving Houston a 2-0 series lead and supplying perhaps the single most energetic moment of the postseason to that point. That designation lasted all of one day; on Sunday, Justin Turner one-upped the heroic feats with a walk-off play of his own, blasting a three-run homer to give L.A. its own 2-0 series lead and send Dodger Stadium into a frenzy even wilder than the one it experienced the night before.
Lackey served one up on a platter and Justin Turner got every bit of it pic.twitter.com/pUQ1rvbDMz— Starting 9 (@Starting9) October 16, 2017
Exactly 29 years after Kirk Gibson won Game 1 of the 1988 World Series—the last time L.A. won a title—Turner became the first Dodger since Gibson to hit a walk-off playoff homer. Twenty-nine years ago, young Turner watched that game winner from his grandmother’s floor and formed one of his “earliest baseball memories,” he said; on Sunday, he was Gibson redux, albeit without the accompanying celebration. “I was waiting for the little, this thing right here,” manager Dave Roberts joked after the game, pantomiming Gibson’s exaggerated fist pump as he limped around the bases.
The connection between the two homers doesn’t extend too far, admittedly, as Gibson’s came in the World Series, against the best closer in baseball—there’s a reason Vin Scully said “the impossible” happened with that swing—while Turner’s came in the NLCS, against John Lackey.
Chicago manager Joe Maddon’s bullpen usage was a strategic curiosity all night. First, lefty Brian Duensing, who among Cubs relievers pitched in relatively few high-leverage innings this year, threw to seven batters with the game on the line. Then, with one runner on and two outs in the ninth inning, Maddon summoned Lackey, his fifth starter and the pitcher who led the NL in homers allowed this year, to pitch on back-to-back days for the first time in his 15-year career. Closer Wade Davis, who had been the lone reliable arm in his bullpen of late, didn’t even warm up.
“We needed [Davis] for the save tonight,” Maddon said, offering a justification reminiscent of Buck Showalter’s last year, when the Orioles manager lost the AL wild-card game with Ubaldo Jiménez rather than insert Zach Britton in a tie game on the road. Or perhaps it recalls Cardinals manager Mike Matheny’s decision to call on Michael Wacha in the ninth inning of a 2014 NLCS game, only to immediately lose the pennant on a Travis Ishikawa walk-off homer. Either way, the “needed him for the save” logic backfired before Lackey recorded a single out, elevating Maddon’s blunder from merely questionable to all-time disastrous.
In that vein, the Cubs skipper almost foreshadowed the Game 2 result—or at least the takeaway—earlier on Sunday afternoon, when discussing the general media tendency to analyze managerial decisions in the playoffs. “When things don’t work out, people have a tendency to vilify the group that it didn’t work out for, as opposed to glorifying the group that it did,” Maddon said.
That’s easier said than done, especially when Maddon’s decision was so ripe for second-guessing. But it’s also worthwhile to celebrate Turner—to watch his smoothly arcing swing again, and to enjoy his ecstatic, full-bearded trot around the infield, complete with a newly exuberant whoop at each base—for the greatest hit of his career. He never exceeded seven homers in a season until 2015 and didn’t qualify for a batting title until the next year, but the former Mets castoff has become one of the sport’s best players in his 30s and now has the singular, capital-M Moment to encapsulate his ascendance from utility player to MVP candidate.
In a postgame interview, Turner revealed that he had never hit a walk-off home run at any level. He picked the right time, and the biggest stage, for his first.