Kyle Schwarber stepped out of the batter’s box and stretched his arms and his bat above his head, loosening up his limbs and the long-sleeved shirt underneath his Red Sox jersey. He wasn’t going to swing anyway. Right? Three balls, no strikes, bases juiced, see if Jose Urquidy can throw a strike after already walking two batters in the inning and throwing 34 pitches.
Schwarber did swing — and good things often happen on the 35th pitch of an inning if you’re the batting team. Schwarber sent a 114-mph rocket into the right-field bleachers to give the Red Sox a 6-0 lead in the second inning of Game 3 of their ALCS against the Astros, on their way to a 12-3 drubbing to take a 2-1 series lead.
It was the 75th grand slam in postseason history. Following the grand slams from J.D. Martinez and Rafael Devers in Game 2, the Red Sox became the first team in postseason history with three grand slams in one series. They join the 1998 Braves as the only team with three grand slams in a single postseason. In three games, they’ve roughed up Astros starters for 14 runs over 5.1 innings as the lineup is suddenly sizzling like the 2018 crew.
We’ll get to more on Schwarber and the Red Sox in a moment, but whenever somebody hits a grand slam I always — always — immediately recollect the famous Jim Palmer factoid: In his long Hall of Fame career, Palmer never allowed a grand slam. This never pops into my brain when I’m walking my dogs or doing the dishes, but a grand slam happens: Jim Palmer. Every time.
It’s an astonishing thing to never happen. Nolan Ryan, the hardest pitcher to hit in major league history, allowed 10 grand slams in his career, the most ever, which is as equally astonishing as Palmer never allowing one, especially since they allowed a similar number of total home runs — 321 for Ryan, 303 for Palmer.
Palmer faced the bases loaded 213 times in his career. Batters hit .196 against him in those situations, with 13 walks, 40 strikeouts, 12 double plays and just six extra-base hits. Tim Kurkjian wrote about Palmer’s grand-slam feat last year, and Palmer recalled the closest he came to allowing a grand slam. In a game against Cleveland in 1977, Rico Carty hit a deep fly ball to center field, but Al Bumbry reached over the fence and robbed Carty of a home run.
Memories, of course, can be faulty or exaggerated, particularly 43 years after the fact, so it sounds like one to fact check. As it turns out, that game is easy to find. Palmer faced Cleveland just once that season, on Sept. 24 in old Municipal Stadium. Sure enough, in the bottom of the eighth inning, the Indians loaded the bases with no outs, the game tied 1-1. Palmer got Andre Thornton to pop out to second base, struck out Bruce Bochte and induced Carty to fly out. Ken Singleton and Eddie Murray then won the game with home runs off Dennis Eckersley in the ninth.
And, yes, Bumbry made the play as Palmer remembered. “To win, Bumbry had to make a leaping catch for the last out of the inning, depriving Rico Carty of a bases-loaded homer,” the Baltimore Sun reported.
So now back to Schwarber’s grand slam — and the Red Sox belting three in a two-game span during this league championship series. This is a unique accomplishment, even as wild baseball trivia goes, and it’s also meaningful trivia, because it’s helping the Red Sox win games. Some quick research:
Schwarber’s home run came on the 2,942nd plate appearance in postseason history with the bases loaded. Since 75 of those ended with a home run, that’s a grand slam every 39.2 plate appearances.
During the 2021 regular season there were 4,516 plate appearances with the bases loaded and 159 grand slams, or one every 28.4 plate appearances. You would expect more grand slams to be hit in 2021 than in postseason history, since home runs are hit at a much higher rate now than throughout baseball history.
We mentioned Ryan. He allowed a grand slam every 50.9 plate appearances, so he was still stingier than your average postseason pitcher. Jamie Moyer allowed 522 home runs in his career, the most ever. He allowed eight grand slams in 265 plate appearances — one every 33.1 plate appearances. Ryan’s issue is that he faced so many more bases-loaded situations in his career than other pitchers, the price he paid for walking so many batters.
As for Schwarber, he swung at a 3-0 pitch and stood there as the long, majestic fly ball sailed into the cool Fenway night. Schwarber isn’t somebody who usually admires his home runs, although he did do a circle fist pump and bat toss when he homered off Gerrit Cole in the wild-card game. But can you blame him? He also carried the bat most of the way to first, but you ride the emotional roller coaster this time of year and, really, this was nothing special for a grand slam in a playoff game, especially considering Carlos Correa’s “This is my time” home run in Game 1.
Watching Schwarber’s at-bat, was there ever a more predictable grand slam? That sounds silly, predicting a grand slam. We just told you they don’t happen that often. But consider how the inning unfolded. Urquidy walked Alex Verdugo with one out. J.D. Martinez doubled, and then Hunter Renfroe walked to load the bases. Christian Vazquez singled in one run and Christian Arroyo reached on the hard-hit two-hopper that bounced off Jose Altuve’s chest for an error. Urquidy had fallen behind Martinez, Renfroe, Vazquez, Arroyo and now Schwarber — five straight batters. If there was any time a pitcher seemed likely to groove a 3-0 fastball, this was it.
Still … batters don’t usually swing 3-0 and even less often with the bases loaded. In the regular season, batters swung at a 3-0 pitch with the bases loaded just 7.9% of the time. Of the 74 previous grand slams in postseason history, we know the counts for 58 of them. The only one that came on a 3-0 count was Reggie Sanders of the Cardinals off Jake Peavy of the Padres in the 2005 NLDS. There have been grand slams on 0-2 counts (3) than 3-0 (2).
So maybe Schwarber’s blast wasn’t exactly predictable, but you could sure feel it coming.
The greatest grand slam in postseason history? By win probability added, it’s the one Paul Konerko hit in Game 2 of the 2005 World Series for the White Sox. Trailing the Astros 4-2 in the bottom of the seventh with the bases juiced and two outs on a cold, wet night in Chicago, Konerko swung at a first-pitch offering from Chad Qualls and lined the ball into the left-field seats. The Astros would actually tie the game in the top of the ninth before Scott Podsednik hit a walk-off home run off Brad Lidge.
Konerko’s grand slam certainly turned the game around, but it’s not even the most memorable home run from that game. Not only did Podsednik hit the walk-off home run, but he hadn’t hit a home run all season, in 507 at-bats. Even among White Sox fans, Podsednik’s home run is one to remember.
So Konerko’s slam can’t be the greatest.
Second on the win probability list is the one Devon White hit for the Marlins against the Giants in the 1997 NLDS. White, who was a really good underrated player, turned a 1-0 deficit in the sixth inning into a 4-1 lead. Do even diehard Marlins fans recall that one? (No jokes about diehard Marlins fans.) Win probability favors results with two outs, because if the batter makes an out, the inning and rally are over. Understandable. But this is not the greatest slam in postseason history and maybe not even worthy of the top 25.
David Ortiz hit a huge one for the Red Sox in the 2013 ALCS against the Tigers. Trailing 5-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 2, with Boston in danger of going down 2-0 in the series, he tied the game off Joaquin Benoit, and the Red Sox won it the next inning — going on to win the series and then the World Series.
My own, completely biased choice is an easy one: Edgar Martinez’s salami for the Mariners off John Wetteland in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the 1995 ALDS, breaking open a 6-6 game. It doesn’t score high in win probability because it came with no outs, so there was a good chance the Mariners score anyway, but I’m absolutely going to run the video:
Also, consider the ramifications of that home run:
–Because of it, Buck Showalter was afraid to use Wetteland in Game 5;
–Which meant Jack McDowell was in there pitching to Martinez for his series-winning double in the 11th inning;
–Which led to Joe Torre replacing Showalter as Yankees manager;
–Setting the Yankees’ dynasty into gear;
–Oh, and it saved baseball in Seattle.
So, yes, I might go with Martinez’s grand slam as the greatest in postseason history.
I think four others could vie for greatest ever:
1. Bill Skowron hit the only Game 7 grand slam in World Series history, for the Yankees in 1956, but they were already leading 5-0.
2. Kent Hrbek for the Twins in Game 6 of the 1987 World Series, turning a 6-5 lead into a 10-5 lead and setting the stage for the Twins to then win Game 7.
3. New York’s Tino Martinez in Game 1 in the 1998 World Series, off Mark Langston of the Padres with the game tied 5-5 and two outs in the seventh. On a 3-2 pitch. After Langston had struck out Martinez on the previous pitch — except home-plate umpire Rich Garcia missed the call.
4. Johnny Damon’s slam in the second inning of Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS, giving the Red Sox a 6-0 lead over the Yankees. It remains the only grand slam hit in a Game 7 of an LCS.
Then again, the most memorable postseason grand slam might just be the one that wasn’t — Robin Ventura’s grand slam single for the Mets in the rain in the bottom of the 15th inning in the 1999 NLCS:
Then again, we’re only three games into this series. What will Schwarber and the Red Sox have in store in the next two games … and perhaps beyond?