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Baseball is filled with unusual terms, from eephus pitch to beanball, the knuckler, or a can of corn. With the new Major League Baseball season underway, we’ve already heard some of the more rare ones ~ like “inside-the-park” or “walk off” used to describe a type of home run. Which can seem strange, since most everyone knows about a home run.
What is a walk off home run? A walk-off home run in baseball is a 4-base hit that ends a game immediately. To qualify as a walk-off, the home run must provide the home team with the lead that results in an immediate win. Only the home team in baseball can get a walk-off home run. If the visiting team hits a home run to take the lead in a game, the home team always gets the last at bat. A walk-off home run occurs when a player on the home team, in the 9th inning or later, hits a home run that scores enough runs to take the lead in a game.
By rule at that point the game ends, because both sides batted the same number of times over the course of an official game (when they are 9 innings long; some MLB games today are only 7 innings long), and the home team took the lead.
When that happens, players can walk off the field. It could be applied to the defenders who are left standing out on the field while the last hitter of the game circles the bases; or the home team once the batter touches home plate.
In football the term used is “sudden death,” meaning one play just ended up really poorly for one team. Here’s a look at the term “walk off home run,” its history, and some of the most memorable ones.
The MLB gives credit to Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley for coining the phrase. He described home runs that ended games and were no-doubt hits right off the bat, so the pitcher could then just walk off the field. No need to watch the ball, nor the runners scoring to end the game, or the opposing team celebrating.
Today, there are all kinds of “walk off” hits, not just long homers. There can be walk-off base hits, errors, sacrifice flies, wild pitches, passed balls, or even walks or hit-by-pitches if the bases were loaded to force in a final run. Even a pitcher’s balk can end a game if a runner is on 3rd base.
A walk off depends on how many runs the home team needs in order to take the lead. It can be just 1, if a game is tied, or the truly spectacular when a play knocks in 2 or more runs because the home team was about to lose the game. Not much in baseball is more thrilling than having a team right on the cusp of winning a game, but then, on a single play, the opposite happens.
That causes a massive shift of emotions for a lot of people.
Other than by home run, other types of walk-off hits or situations are typically defended against fiercely by the visiting team. That is, with less than 2 outs and a runner on 2nd or 3rd base (e.g. “scoring position”), the visiting team may move outfielders in toward home plate to shorten the throw to maybe catch a tagging runner from 3rd base, for instance.
The bottom line is they want to stop the lead runner from scoring. Why not, right, if that run would result in a loss? They might bring infielders in, to the edge of the infield grass to also try to make plays at the plate, or outfielders will play “shallow,” closer to home plate to boost odds of throwing a runner out trying to score from 2nd base.
Teams might even adjust where their infielders are positioned, like in an extreme shift to one side of the infield, if a batter’s hitting tendencies call for it. Anything to try to make an out to end the inning without the other team scoring, so they can get to bat again and try to take the lead themselves.
None of that matters with a walk-off homer. The only one who can defend against that is the pitcher. And they do fail from time to time ~ sometimes spectacularly.
There have been a lot of walk-off home runs in MLB history, long before Eckersley gave them a name in the 1980s. In fact, it was Eckersly himself who you can see to this day walking off the pitcher’s mound after one of the most famous of all. Let’s look at that one, followed by some of the most notable walk-offs ever.
In what may be the most-famous walk-off home run in MLB history, Kirk Gibson of the Los Angeles Dodgers was called to pinch-hit with one man on base and 2 outs in the ninth inning of the first game of the 1988 World Series against the heavily favored Oakland Athletics. Gibson’s knee was so injured, few thought he would be able to play at all. So when manager Tommy Lasorda called his name to go pinch-hit against the famed game-closer Eckersley, the Dodger Stadium crowd tensed for the battle.
Gibson took 2 mighty swings to foul off pitches ~ almost falling down after one due to knee pain ~ before Eckersley tried to slip a back-door slider by him to end the game. Gibson took a mighty, rather leaning and off-balance swing to catch the ball on the outside part of the plate, driving it well over the right-field fence for a final 4-3 Dodgers win.
If you want to know what Eckersley meant when coining the walk-off phrase, watch him carefully during the entire infamous sequence when Gibson rounded the bases He just drops his head and begins walking off the field. (That single hit produced enough momentum for the Dodgers to carry on to a stunning World Series upset, ultimately winning the series 4 games to 1 in a match most known for Orel Hershiser’s pitching dominance).
In another blast that produced a stunning upset, second-baseman Bill Mazeroski stepped to the plate in the 10th inning of a decisive World Series Game 7 matchup with the mighty New York Yankees in 1960. Mazeroski was known more for his stellar glove work, which ultimately propelled him into the Hall of Fame many years later. But this blast didn’t hurt his cause.
Even though the 7th game was tied, for the entire series, the Yankees had completely dominated Mazeroski’s Pittsburgh Pirates, convincingly outscoring them in total. Still, the Yankees could only manage to win half the previous contests, providing the Bucs an opportunity to steal the cherished championship.
And that they did, when Mazeroski blasted a pitch from Ralph Terry over the head of Yogi Berra and then over the tall left-field wall at old Forbes Field. Mazeroski’s jubilant sprint around the bases, gleefully avoiding fans rushing onto the field, is among the most memorable images in baseball history.
The 1993 World Series was a classic: a Toronto Blue Jays team of superstars greatly empowered by expensive free agents; and an underdog Philadelphia Phillies team full of cast-offs like John Kruk and Lenny Dykstra, and oddballs like reliever Mitch Williams.
It was Williams on the mound at the end of Game 6, with the Jays leading the series 3 games to 2, and the Phillies hoping to win and extend to a final contest. In a tie game with a speedy Rickey Henderson on base distracting the pitcher, Williams let loose a slider that caught too much of the plate. Carter lined the pitch over the left-field wall (eerily similar to the walk-off hit mentioned next), ending the season with a jubilant hop around the bases.
This one is immortal partially because of a broadcaster’s call: “Giants win the pennant! Giants win the pennant!” That followed Bobby Thomson’s fateful line-drive homer over the left-field wall at the old Polo Grounds, which ended a season-ending 3-game playoff series between the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951. In this one, pitcher Ralph Branca became famous for delivering a pitch that ended his team’s season and sent the Giants on to lose the World Series to cross-town rival Yankees.
Perhaps the most unusual walk off home runs are when they are the inside-the-park variety, or if the home run happens to be a grand slam ~ which sometimes concludes an instant, gigantic comeback by the trailing team. Here are 2 notable examples:
- At the very beginning of the 2021 MLB season, rookie McKinstry hit a ball at Coors Field that could have cleared the fence to end the game. Only, Colorado Rockies left-fielder Raimel Tapia made a spectacular play to glove the ball and keep it in play.
The only problem was, Tapia hurt himself on the play and fell to the ground in play ~ as the ball squirted from his glove for a no-catch. While the centerfielder hurried over to retrieve the ball, McKinstry sprinted around the bases and beat the throw to end the game on an inside-the-park walk-off home run.
- Perhaps the most-famous regular season walk-off home run was also by a Pittsburgh Pirate, and it quickly turned a 3-run deficit into an instant win. Roberto Clemente was the star in this one, in only his second year of a long, very notable Hall of Fame career.
With the bases loaded and no outs on July 25, 1956, in the bottom of the 9th inning at Forbes Field, Clemente hit a high and inside pitch hard to left-field. The left fielder went back to the fence, but the ball was too high to stop. It ended up striking a slanted portion of fencing, then rolled fast away from the left fielder and along a cinder path toward center field.
Clemente was running like a madman, and actually ran through a “stop” signal by the third base coach, to barely beat the relay throw to home plate for the only inside-the-park grand slam home run in MLB history.
Walk-off home runs are among the most exciting single plays in all of sports. Baseball’s last inning is always suspenseful when the score is close, which it often is. Suspense makes for great drama, as any playwright or movie director is well aware. And the walk-off homer provides a stunning, often unexpected end to the suspense.
It’s like a swift, total-surprise ending of a good mystery book, except the viewer lives the moment in real life. Walk off home runs provide instant thrill to the winners, and demoralizing pain for the other side.