By Will Burchfield
Heading into his fourth at-bat of the game on Monday, Jarrod Saltalamacchia was having a bad night and a worse month.
He was 0-3 against the White Sox and 5-38 (.132) in August.
But with the Tigers trailing by one and the tying run on base in the bottom of the eighth, they felt confident with their backup catcher at the plate. If the odds were against him, the moment was not.
“He’s not scared in those situations,” said Ian Kinsler. “He’s going to take his swings, he’s going to get aggressive swings in. He’s got good strike zone judgment, he can take walks in those situations as you’ve seen throughout the year.”
But Saltalamacchia wasn’t looking for a walk, not in this case.
“I was looking for a fastball,” he said. “That one stayed straight, didn’t really have much movement on it, and I was able to put good wood on it.”
Such good wood that it carried all the way toward the cutout in the right center field fence, nearly 400 feet away. Outfielders Avisail Garcia and Adam Eaton converged on the ball, Garcia appearing for a moment to have a bead on it.
“I thought it was out, but the way Garcia was going after it I was thinking, ‘Uh-oh, maybe it’s not as far as I thought,’” Ausmus said.
Then Garcia slowed up and looked skyward, Ausmus allowed himself to celebrate, and the ball came down amidst a sea of waving arms because of course it did.
“Salty came up huge, he’s done that a number of times this year with the homerun,” said Ausmus. “For a backup catcher he’s had some production, he’s contributed to the offense quite a bit.
“He’s a big strong guy, so when he gets a hold of it on the barrel, it can go.”
Saltalamacchia’s game-winning homerun on Monday night was his fourth of the season and his fifth game-winning hit overall. His clutch crusade began back in April when he clubbed a go-ahead grand slam against the Pirates and it has continued (haltingly at times) ever since. The man is mortal in the early innings, but he’s something of a monster when the game tightens up.
“He’s done it before and I think being in that situation before, having the experience, allows you to be a little more settled,” Ausmus said.
Saltalamacchia spoke to this same notion, but clarified he doesn’t care who comes up with the big hit.
“I’ve been through a lot in my career and I’ve been humbled a lot and I’m thankful for every opportunity,” he said. “But at the end of the day it’s about wins regardless if I do it or if someone else does it. If I hit a homerun and we lose it doesn’t mean anything, so the win is what makes me feel a lot better.”
Saltalamacchia has had a unique season at the plate. His average (.192) is pitiful, but his OPS (.705) is redemptive. He hasn’t hit much, but almost half of his knocks have gone for extra bases. Perhaps strangest of all, Saltalamacchia has nearly as many RBI (37) as he does hits (39).
His ability to come through in the clutch has seen him defy the advanced metrics. Wins Above Replacement (WAR), for example, is a context-neutral stat, meaning it doesn’t consider the circumstances surrounding a player’s production. As such, Saltalamacchia’s offensive WAR is calculated as 1.0, yet there are five games this season in which he has lifted the Tigers to victory.
Not that he’s keeping track, or anything.
“I don’t know,” he smiled, when asked how many game-winning hits he’s delivered. “It’s a win, that’s all.”