MILWAUKEE -- When you picked up a baseball bat as a kid and strode to home plate at the imaginary stadium in your backyard, surely you dreamed about the opportunity staring at Daniel Vogelbach on Sunday afternoon at American Family Field.
Bottom of the ninth inning. Bases loaded. Last hitter off the bench. A chance to win the game with a walk-off grand slam.
On a magical day on which grand slams dotted Major League baseball’s landscape, Vogelbach lived that dream.
“It was a beautiful moment,” said Brewers manager Craig Counsell, “and a great, incredible win.”
Vogelbach joined MLB's "ultimate slam" club with his clutch blast, becoming the 28th player on record to hit a bases-loaded, walk-off homer when his team enters its final at-bat trailing by three runs.
It was the Brewers’ most incredible, improbable, uplifting victory of the year, 6-5 over the Cardinals after Vogelbach smashed a center-cut fastball from Cardinals closer Alex Reyes over the right-field wall for the team’s first walk-off home run this season, its eighth walk-off grand slam ever, and the first since Ryan Braun went deep with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 10th inning against the Pirates on Sept. 25, 2008, when that team was pushing for the franchise’s first postseason appearance in a generation.
This Brewers team is pushing, too. With Sunday’s comeback in Milwaukee and a Reds loss at home to the Tigers, the Brewers were back to a season-high 30 games over .500, and their magic number to clinch the National League Central fell to 14 with 24 games to play.
“I enjoy being in those situations, whether I fail or whether I succeed,” Vogelbach said. “As a competitor, you always want to be in those situations and be the guy that steps up to the plate in that situation. I'm just happy that I was able to come through for the guys who grinded all game. It seemed like we were playing from behind the whole time.”
They’d been playing from behind since a series of unfortunate events befell starter Corbin Burnes in the fourth inning, when a pair of soft singles and a four-pitch walk to Yadier Molina -- while Molina was trying to give away an out with a bunt -- set up a three-run rally for the Cardinals.
Two of the runs scored on a funky bouncer off Harrison Bader’s bat that slipped under the glove of third baseman Eduardo Escobar for what was called a fair ball. It was first ruled an error, then changed to a two-run double. Whatever the official scoring ruling, it gave St. Louis a 3-1 lead.
“Probably one of the more frustrating innings I’ve had this year,” Burnes said.
The Cardinals extended their lead to 5-1 in the seventh inning and held onto it in the eighth, even after the Brewers loaded the bases with one out. With two outs, Christian Yelich was robbed by leaping first baseman Paul Goldschmidt on a 104.8 mph line drive that had ‘extra-base hit’ and ‘multiple runs’ written all over it.
Instead, it remained a 5-1 deficit.
“That was one of the great things about this game -- after that line drive gets caught with Yeli, it feels like that was your shot,” Counsell said. “It’s deflating when that ball gets caught.”
In the ninth, with Giovanny Gallegos back on the mound, the Brewers mounted another threat. Slumping outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. started things with a double, and backup catcher Luke Maile made it 5-2 with a run-scoring single. After Luis Urías struck out, Jace Peterson delivered another of his long at-bats and doubled on Gallegos’ seventh pitch. Escobar then walked to load the bases.
With Vogelbach in the on-deck circle, the Cardinals called for their All-Star closer, Reyes.
“You could see [Gallegos] was at the end of his gas tank, so we go to a guy with stuff in Alex,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “And you know what happened after that.”
This has not been an easy season for Vogelbach. He came to the Brewers last August after struggling in Seattle and Toronto and provided some punch, then emerged this season as the primary first baseman when Keston Hiura slumped. But Vogelbach suffered a hamstring injury in late June and was sidelined until the start of September. When he returned last week as a callup, he’d been replaced at first base by Rowdy Tellez, another left-handed hitter with power who ranks ahead of Vogelbach defensively.
The bulk of Vogelbach’s opportunities this month figure to be like Sunday’s -- off the bench.
“I've said it all the time, my ultimate goal every single day is to win,” he said. “I want to win more than anybody and anything I do, whether it's on the field or messing around in the backyard just playing anything, I want to win. I'm a competitor.”
Said Counsell: “In one sense, it’s a shame because he got hurt. We made an acquisition to cover for it and [Tellez] has done a nice job. So, for now, this is [Vogelbach’s] job, being a bat off the bench. To deliver in that way, and you don’t get a big sample of opportunities, is a real credit to him. It’s, ‘I want to do this job and help this team.’ He’s decided to do that.”
Sunday’s situation called for a home run.
“I was down in the clubhouse,” Burnes said. “We were actually watching [on the] TV and we have the 15-second delay, so we could hear everyone in the dugout and stadium going nuts before we actually saw it. They spoiled it for us down there.”
“You get those opportunities so rarely,” Counsell said. “It’s awesome. It has to be an amazing feeling, an incredible feeling. It’s probably surreal, actually.”
Vogelbach’s grand slam was the sixth across Major League Baseball on Sunday, one shy of the all-time record for the sport, pending the inclusion of Negro Leagues stats.
“I think the biggest thing is, nobody feels like they have to be the guy, you know?” Vogelbach said of the 84-54 Brewers. “It's like, pass it along to the next guy, have just as much faith in the guy behind you. That's kind of the way it's been all year.”