CLEVELAND: In terms of Indians’ free-agent acquisitions, Jason Giambi was practically an afterthought, overshadowed by the signings of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn.
Most thought he was biding his time until someone in baseball hired him, especially after he interviewed twice last winter with his old team, the Colorado Rockies, to be their manager.
On Tuesday, the Indians were enveloped by Giambi’s giant shadow. With four games remaining after Wednesday’s 7-2 victory over the Chicago White Sox, they know they wouldn’t be battling for a wild-card berth without him.
He is 42, with a salt and pepper beard that is mostly salt, but Giambi epitomizes the 2013 Indians. He represents their scrappy attitude, their resilience, their knack for being saved by unlikely heroes, especially off the bench. He is not only their leader, but the face of a team without superstars.
“G has become so important to so many people in our organization that it’s a blessing we signed him,” Tribe manager Terry Francona said. “He has been as instrumental in us moving forward as anybody and probably more so than anybody. That’s a lot of praise for a guy who’s got 190 at-bats.”
On Tuesday, when his two-run pinch-hit walk-off home run gave the Indians a 5-4 victory over the White Sox, Giambi provided one of the signature moments in team history. The call of Tom Hamilton, the voice of the Indians, was replayed over and over in the aftermath, with his long pause in the middle making one wonder if he’d had a heart attack.
“I almost did,” Hamilton said. “It was one of those you’ll always remember.”
The improbability of it matched the improbability of the Indians making the playoffs, especially after the Tribe lost 93 games or more three of the previous four years.
Giambi already had a pinch-hit walk-off this season, coming against the White Sox on July 29. A woman getting a pedicure in Northfield on Wednesday afternoon said she’d told her husband, “Maybe he’ll do it again,” when Giambi came up. She probably wasn’t the only one who called his shot, but until he delivered, it seemed like wishful thinking.
Since the start of divisional play in 1969, only four players before Giambi had hit walk-offs twice in a season and Giambi was the last (with the Rockies in 2010). Two walk-offs against the same team hasn’t happened since 1968, when the Tigers’ Gates Brown victimized the Red Sox. Giambi recorded his 10th career walk-off, tied for the third most in the majors since 1995, the year Giambi was called up.
On Wednesday, Giambi was in the lineup at designated hitter, filling a spot in the order with Bourn sidelined with a sprained right wrist.
The crowd of 30,942 for the final regular-season game at Progressive Field acknowledged Giambi’s blast with a standing ovation when he came to bat in the second inning, but Giambi did not respond. Instead, he sent a liner over the first-base bag that strayed barely foul on the first pitch he saw from Dylan Axelrod. On the second, he singled to the right-field corner.
After going 1-for-2 with a walk before being lifted for a pinch-runner, Giambi raised his average to .185, with 34 hits in 184 at bats in 70 games. But his limited playing time does not correlate to his value.
“There’s zero ego,” Francona said of Giambi. “You can pinch hit for him in the fifth inning, but the time he’s putting his helmet down he’s cheering for the next guy. All he wants to do is be part of a winner. On top of that, the messages he delivers to his teammates, to me, are always well thought out. People want to listen to G; they gravitate towards him. If they don’t they’re crazy.
“I’ve never been around anybody who has his presence.”
Francona said Giambi doesn’t get to the park as early as he used to because he and wife Kristian have a 2-year-old daughter. But he works as hard as a 25-year-old.
“It’s not an accident he hit that home run last night,” Francona said. “You stay ready and you stay ready and when your name is called … it doesn’t mean you’re always going to hit a home run, but if you’re not ready you have no chance.”
As valuable as he is, Giambi also serves as Francona’s seventh assistant, a throwback to the days of the player/manager. Although he’s not thaaaat old.
“I can’t tell you how many times during the course of a year I’ll say, ‘G, just take care of that’ and it’s done,” Francona said. “He’s got big shoulders … sometimes I think we ask too much of him, but he can handle it.”
Giambi started impressing Francona on the first day of spring training, when Francona saw him calm nervous minor-league first baseman Jesus Aguilar as they fielded ground balls.
“It wasn’t loud, it was a nice, calm pat on the back and the kid kind of relaxed. That was my first taste of G,” Francona said.
On Tuesday, fans got another taste of ‘G,’ and it turned into a celebratory toast. If the Indians qualify for the postseason, they will need his calm, steadying voice, his clubhouse speeches, his playoff experience. But most of all, his presence.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.