CLEVELAND -- The White Sox may have had the bottles of champagne to pop after Thursday’s doubleheader at Progressive Field, but that doesn’t mean Indians outfielder Oscar Mercado couldn’t walk away with a big grin on his face.
Mercado had never hit a walk-off homer before his two-run jack that gave Cleveland a 5-3 win in Game 2 and a split of the twin bill. Including all of his professional career (Majors or Minor Leagues); he had never previously ended a game with a homer for as long as he’s played baseball. It’s a moment that every aspiring big leaguer dreams of as a kid when they’re swinging a Wiffle ball bat in the backyard. And finally, Mercado got to experience that feeling.
Just hours after the White Sox clinched the division title with a 7-2 victory in Game 1, the Indians found themselves clawing their way back from each deficit they found themselves in during the nightcap. And after losing the lead in the top of the seventh inning, Mercado was the hero in the bottom half of the frame, launching his decisive home run onto the home run porch in left field.
“That was pretty special,” Mercado said. “I don't think in my entire life I've ever hit a walk-off home run, so that was a first, not just as a pro baseball player, a big league baseball player, but also as a baseball player in general. So it was a sweet feeling. It was pretty special.”
It was a brisk Cleveland night with the wind chill dipping into the 40s, but that didn’t stop his teammates from dumping coolers of ice water on him as he leaped into the dogpile waiting for him at the plate. It marked the Indians’ American League-leading fifth walk-off homer of the season and Mercado’s second walk-off plate appearance of his career (his last being a walk-off single on June 11, 2019, against the Reds).
It was a relieving moment for Mercado, who has been desperately attempting to prove his worth to this organization. His 2019 rookie campaign was strong and gave everyone the expectations that his ceiling was sky high. But a disappointing pandemic-shortened 2020 season resulted in his demotion to Triple-A and he didn’t make the Opening Day roster in ‘21.
Over his previous 16 games entering Thursday, he’d hit a mere .167 with a .612 OPS. But he still has the last two weeks of the season to leave a good impression on his club.
“You know, hopefully a lot.” acting manager DeMarlo Hale said, when asked what a moment like that does for a struggling player. “We told Mercado we weren’t bunting, go up there and get a good pitch. He matched the situation and the moment, and I’m happy for him. It was a big moment for him.”
Mercado saw three heaters from White Sox reliever José Ruiz -- two balls and one over the inside corner at the top of the strike zone that traveled a Statcast-projected 391 feet from home plate. It’s a zone that hasn’t been one of Mercado’s hot spots (he prefers middle-middle or pitches over the middle of the plate in the bottom third of the zone), but it was one that he was ready to prove he could handle.
“Well I had been seeing the ball pretty well,” Mercado said. “I was kind of in an 0-for streak, but I felt like I was laying off good pitches and swinging at strikes, and seeing the ball well. Just a little mechanical adjustment, whether I was getting a little long or whatever it may be, I just told myself to go up there and try to be as direct to the ball as possible. It worked out.”
Mercado is hoping a lot works out in his favor as the offseason nears and his future with the Indians is unknown. He doesn’t hit arbitration until 2023, but he’s still in a quest to show that he belongs in Cleveland’s outfield. He’s gotten a better taste of getting consistent playing time as of late and has enjoyed each opportunity he’s gotten.
It’s up to Mercado to continue to take advantage of each opportunity he’s given over the final two weeks of the regular season.
“It's been nice to be able to go up there and play every day, and compete with the guys,” Mercado said. “It's a good group of guys, everyone gets along. Just the chance to be out there and compete with all my friends, it's always nice and I look forward to it every day.”