September 6, 2021: Nelson Cruz’s ‘Little League’ grand slam helps Rays beat Boston
If you needed to check some baseball oddities off your lifetime list, this was your game.
Inside-the-park home run? Intentional balk? “Little League”1 grand slam? A 41-year-old slugger scrambling around the bases—three times?
All that, and more! The 26,512 fans at Fenway Park on Labor Day 2021 saw a five-hour2 slugfest—26 position players with 33 hits off 14 pitchers. At least the weather was perfect—82 degrees and sunny.
The defending American League champion Tampa Bay Rays (86-51) were leading the AL East by 7½ games. The Boston Red Sox (79-60) were in third place, eight games behind the Rays, but still in the wild-card chase. They had played a four-game series in Tampa the previous week, so both starting pitchers were familiar to the opposing hitters, and neither made it through four innings.3
Chris Sale (3-0, 2.53 ERA) took the mound for Boston, making only his fifth start of the year.4 Rays shortstop and second-place batter Wander Franco hit the first pitch he saw off the center-field wall. Alex Verdugo leapt for it but missed, and Franco had a one-out triple. He had matched Mickey Mantle’s 36-game on-base streak for a player under 21 years old.5
Franco scored on Nelson Cruz’s single, the first of his three hits for the day. The Rays had acquired Cruz in a July trade, hoping his bat and veteran leadership would help their quest for the postseason.6
Yandy Díaz hit a dribbler toward third—so slowly that Rafael Devers had no play. Jordan Luplow fouled a ball off the mask of umpire Manny González, who had to leave the game; John Libka took over at second and Laz Diaz worked the plate.7
When play resumed, Luplow struck out, but Manuel Margot hit another dribbler toward third—Devers made a throw but it was late. The bases were loaded, but Sale struck out Austin Meadows to get out of the jam.
Boston tied the game in its half of the first but also left the bases loaded. Three consecutive one-out singles, by Kyle Schwarber, Hunter Renfroe, and J.D. Martinez off Ryan Yarbrough (8-4, 4.50 ERA), evened the score at 1-1. Yarbrough issued a two-out walk to Bobby Dalbec to load the bases again, but escaped his jam when Verdugo lined out.
Sale worked a clean top of the second on nine pitches. The first out was another dribbler up the third-base line—Sale jumped off the mound and fielded this one himself.
The Red Sox got the fans cheering in the second—they batted around and scored six runs. It started with a Christian Vázquez single off the Green Monster.8 Taylor Motter9 hit his only double of the year, scoring Vázquez to give Boston a 2-1 lead. Schwarber took first when he was plunked on the behind by an errant 68-mph pitch.
Renfroe missed a home run by inches—the ball hit the red line at the top of the Monster. Review upheld it as a double that scored Motter and pushed Schwarber to third. Martinez was walked intentionally, which backfired when Devers looped a hit into center, scoring another run. Dalbec’s just-fair-in-the-corner double and Verdugo’s sacrifice fly scored three more, and Boston led 7-1.10
It took nearly an hour and a half to play the first two innings but the third went quickly. Sale allowed two baserunners but no scoring, and Shawn Armstrong (who took over for Yarbrough) had a clean inning.
Sale induced two fly outs to open the fourth, as the fielders battled the bright afternoon sun.11 Taylor Walls, Arozarena, and Franco followed with singles. Right fielder Renfroe’s strong throw to the plate kept Walls at third on Franco’s hit.
Cruz hammered a ball to center. Verdugo seemed to be tracking it, but it bounced off his glove, then off the wall. Verdugo finally threw it in as three runners scored and Cruz chugged for third,12 but Motter’s relay throw went out of play so Cruz ambled home.13
The initial scoring was “triple plus error,” which meant at least three of the runs were earned. The Rays announcers, DeWayne Staats and Brian Anderson, immediately said they expected that to be changed, “since that was Chris Sale on the mound.” It was—before the end of the game it had been changed to “two errors and no RBIs” for Cruz, making all four runs unearned. Two more singles ended Sale’s day. Garrett Richards, a starter until early August, got the final out on one pitch but the score was now 7-5.
In the fourth through sixth innings, the shadow of the ballpark fell between home plate and the pitcher’s mound, giving the pitchers a decided advantage. There was only one single from the bottom of the fourth and through both halves of the fifth inning.
The scoring started again in the top of the sixth. Franco’s one-out single made it his first career four-hit game.14 He scored on Luplow’s single, bringing Tampa within one.
Boston got the run back in the bottom of the frame off reliever J.T. Chargois. Motter tripled—Margot tried to time his leap into the wall but missed the ball and broke his glasses. Motter scored easily on Renfroe’s single—8-6, Boston.
Tampa pulled closer in the seventh. Josh Taylor, the third Red Sox pitcher, allowed a one-out hit to catcher Mike Zunino, clanging off the scoreboard in left.15 When Zunino tried for a double, the throw to second beat him, but Motter dropped the ball so he was safe.16 Zunino took third on Walls’ groundout and scored on Arozarena’s single off Adam Ottavino—8-7, Boston.
The see-saw scoring continued in the bottom of the seventh. Boston pushed its lead back to 9-7 on a Jonathan Araúz solo homer off J.P. Feyereisen, the Rays’ fifth pitcher.
Ottavino stayed in to pitch the eighth and allowed another run. Cruz—the third-oldest player in the majors in 2021—hit his 445th career home run, over the Monster, to again make it a one-run game.
David Robertson pitched a scoreless bottom of the eighth, striking out three Red Sox around a walk. Schwarber was called out on strikes—he had a few parting words for Laz Diaz but wasn’t ejected.
With Boston three outs from victory in the ninth, Meadows tied the game. He bounced Garrett Whitlock’s eighth pitch of the at-bat off the center-field wall. Verdugo leapt for the ball but missed—again.
As the ball bounded back toward the infield, Verdugo stopped to look in his glove, then turned around to look for the ball. Neither of the corner outfielders backed him up. Eventually newly signed shortstop José Iglesias17 corralled the ball and heaved it in toward home plate, but it was still skittering through the infield as Meadows slid in.18 His teammates fanned him with a towel once he made it to the dugout.
The Boston crowd was cheering loudly for a walk-off win, especially when pinch-hitter Travis Shaw opened with a ground-rule double off Collin McHugh. Franchy Cordero replaced Shaw as a pinch-runner but never left second. After Verdugo was intentionally walked, Zunino made a great catch of Vázquez’s foul bunt, and Araúz grounded into an inning-ending double play to send the game to extra innings tied, 9-9.
It didn’t take long for the Rays to take the lead in the 10th, their first lead since the first inning. Arozarena was the automatic runner on second base. With one out, Cruz zipped a low grounder past the diving first baseman. The throw from right was too late to catch Arozarena at the plate and very high as well.
Seeing the throw, Cruz scrambled for second, diving in under the tag. Pinch-hitter Brandon Lowe singled. Cruz turned on the jets again and slid across the plate as the ball arrived—and was safe when the catcher dropped the ball.19 The seventh Red Sox pitcher, Stephen Gonsalves, allowed two more baserunners but got out of the inning with two groundouts.
Down 11-9, Boston had one more chance in the bottom of the 10th. McHugh started the inning by deliberately balking,20 moving Araúz, the runner on second, to third. Iglesias’s single made it a one-run game.
Renfroe hit a one-out hot shot to third and beat the throw to first—confirmed after a replay challenge. With two on and one out, the fans were holding up their phones hoping to catch a walk-off. Martinez flied out, but Devers walked to load the bases. Pinch-hitter Kevin Plawecki was the last hope for Boston—he fouled off a couple of pitches but grounded out to send the Boston fans home unhappy.
As it happened, Cruz may not have met the Rays’ expectations in the regular season (.226 BA) or the postseason (.177 BA), but in this game he certainly did.
The Fenway fans may have been disappointed in this game’s result, but Boston had the upper hand a month later in the ALDS—the Red Sox beat the Rays, three games to one, capping the series with back-to-back walk-off wins.21
This article was fact-checked by Mark Richard and copy-edited by Len Levin.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org, and watched the Rays and Red Sox broadcasts on MLB.com.
1 Included in the SABR definition of a Little League home run is a play in which the batter scores and there are two or more errors on the play. Chuck Hildebrandt, ‘Little League Home Runs’ in MLB History: The Denouement,” Spring 2017 Baseball Research Journal. https://sabr.org/journal/article/little-league-home-runs-in-mlb-history-the-denouement/.
2 In addition to all the hitting, scoring, and an extra inning, there were several delays: The substitute umpire had to get ready, the crew chief review of the double off the top of the Monster, one regular challenge, and a delay when Manuel Margot broke his glasses and had to get new ones after crashing into the wall.
3 Both Boston’s Chris Sale and Tampa Bay’s Ryan Yarbrough had allowed two runs in six innings during the previous series, although they pitched in different games.
4 Sale was returning from Tommy John surgery. Steve Adams, “Red Sox Claim John Schreiber, Place Chris Sale on 60-Day IL,” mlbtraderumors.com, February 18, 2021. https://www.mlbtraderumors.com/2021/02/red-sox-chris-sale-60-day-injured-list-claim-john-schreiber-waivers-tigers.html.
5 Franco had debuted in the majors in June, three months after his 20th birthday. Peter Abraham, “Shortstop Iglesias Reacquired for Infield Depth,” Boston Globe, September 7, 2021; C2. The streak ended at 43 games, tied with Frank Robinson. Adam Berry, “‘Very Special’: Wander’s On-Base Streak Ends,” mlb.com, October 1, 2021. https://www.mlb.com/news/wander-franco-on-base-streak-ends.
6 Cruz was acquired July 22, 2021, traded by the Minnesota Twins with Calvin Faucher to Tampa for Drew Strotman (minors) and Joe Ryan. Tampa was hoping for a continuation of his .294 BA and .907 OPS, 2021 statistics with the Twins. Marc Tompkin, “Big Deal! Rays Acquire Slugger Cruz,” Tampa Bay Times, July 23, 2021: C1.
7 Abraham, “Shortstop Iglesias.” Per Retrosheet, Libka was on site preparing for the next day’s game.
8 The Green Monster (Monster) refers to the left-field wall at Fenway Park. See David Vincent, “Fenway Park’s Hand-Operated Scoreboard,” SABR 2006 Baseball Research Journal. https://sabr.org/journal/article/fenway-parks-hand-operated-scoreboard/ . Retrieved November 6, 2022.
9 Motter had been claimed off waivers from the Rockies on September 2. He was playing because the Red Sox roster had been decimated by COVID-19. Alex Speier, “For Sox, a Season of Hope Tested by Positive Tests,” Boston Globe, September 19, 2021: A1. This was his third and last game for the Red Sox, although he spent some time in September with their Triple-A team in Worchester. This was his only two-hit game of 2021.
10 Per Baseball Reference, their win probability was 85 percent at that point.
11 Renfroe said, “The big ball of fire in the sky is undefeated.” Peter Abraham, “Sox, Beset by Flubs, Blow Six-Run Lead,” Boston Globe, September 7, 2021: C1.
12 He did have one triple in 2021, on April 27 at Progressive Field in Cleveland. That was his first triple since 2018. As of 2022, his career totals stood at 14 triples compared to 459 home runs and 367 doubles.
13 Per Elias Sports Bureau, this was the only time in the Expansion Era that four runs were scored without the benefit of a hit. Jayson Stark, “Stark: Weird and Wild, September History Watch Edition—Shohei Ohtani, Juan Soto, the Orioles and More,” theathletic.com, September 10, 2021. https://theathletic.com/2817882/2021/09/10/stark-weird-and-wild-september-history-watch-edition-shohei-ohtani-juan-soto-the-orioles-and-more/.
14 Franco was Baseball America’s number one overall prospect entering the 2020 and 2021 seasons. Although he didn’t have another four-hit game in 2021, he did finish the year with a .288 batting average and was third in Rookie of the Year voting.
15 He took over from Francisco Mejía, who left with a shoulder contusion.
16 Initially it was scored as “single plus error,” but changed to double the next day.
17 Released by the Angels three days earlier, he had signed with the Red Sox before the game.
18 Abraham, “Sox, Beset by Flubs.”
19 Renfroe, the right fielder, was charged with the error on the throw.
20 He casually took one foot off the rubber and made a motion as if he was going to throw toward third—but didn’t actually throw (also, the runner was not going off second). The presumption (at least by the Boston broadcasters) was that he balked the runner to third to avoid any possible sign-stealing.
21 The Red Sox finished 92-70, second in the AL East to the 100-62 Rays. The Red Sox beat the Yankees in the wild-card game and the Rays in the Division Series, but lost the AL Championship Series to the Astros, four games to two.
Tampa Bay Rays 11
Boston Red Sox 10
Box Score + PBP:
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