'Pronk' puts his game on notice

With two home runs Wednesday, Travis Hafner capped off a monster series against the White Sox and could very well have thrust himself into the AL MVP race.

Originally Published: September 21, 2005
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- We know that only Red Sox, Yankees and Vlad Guerrero are supposed to be allowed into MVP debates this time of year. But ...

If it's OK with the usual suspects, we need to shove a new name into the argument:

Presenting Travis Hafner, ladies and gentlemen.

Travis Hafner
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonTravis Hafner hit two home runs Wednesday, a three-run blast in the eighth and a two-run shot in the ninth.

We apologize if he doesn't wear pinstripes, doesn't create offseason mob scenes when he visits Disney World and wouldn't be recognized by about 9.8 billion Americans if he sat down next to them at lunch. But ...

This week, on the South Side of Chicago, in the biggest series of the Cleveland Indians' season, Travis Hafner had himself the kind of September series that MVPs are made of.

Four home runs -- at least one in every game of the series.

Seven extra-base hits altogether.

And 10 RBI. In 12 at-bats that might have changed the course of events for both the Indians and that White Sox team they were playing for those three nights.

Wednesday night, in a potentially season-turning baseball game, he finished off the Travis Hafner Show with two more home runs and five more RBI in an 8-0 Cleveland wipeout of a White Sox team that saw its AL Central lead squished back to 2½ games over the rampaging Indians.

And when he was through -- not to mention when his team was through taking two of three, to push the S.S. White Sox one more fathom closer to the iceberg -- one of Hafner's teammates found himself in the midst of an eerie MVP flashback.

Six years ago, you might recall, Kevin Millwood was working for a certain team in Atlanta when a guy named Chipper Jones had a series that still lives in MVP lore.

In a very similar late-September setting, the Chipster went 4-for-9 in a pivotal three-game sweep of the second-place Mets, with four homers and seven RBI. And two months later, thanks almost solely to the powerful image of that series, The Man They Don't Call Larry had an MVP award sitting in his trophy case.

OK, lurch forward back to Wednesday. To Kevin Millwood, now six years and three teams down the baseball highway. To a man who couldn't help but take a little journey through the vaults of his memory bank -- all because he might never forget these three days in the life of Travis Hafner.

"This reminds me a lot of that series Chipper had," Millwood said. "Travis pretty much threw us on his back and let us ride on it this whole series."

We'll acknowledge just two minor hitches in that Hafner-Chipper comparison: 1) the Indians only won two of these games, not all three (not that that was Hafner's fault), and 2) Hafner was actually better in this showdown than Jones was in '99. Of those seven hits Hafner got, after all, every one of them drove in a run.

But it was the first of his two homers Wednesday that we may look back on some day as the defining moment in Hafner's ascent to stardom.

It was the eighth inning. The Indians held just a 2-0 lead, which didn't loom real large in a series in which no previous lead had managed to hold up for more than about 15 minutes.

There were two men on base. The biggest throng of the series (36,543) was shredding what was left of its vocal tissue after Hafner immediately fell behind White Sox starter Jon Garland, 0 and 2. And ...

He's like a lot of guys in here. He's about winning the game. You hear that about a lot of guys, I know. And with most guys, it's lip service. But not with him. With him, he's like a lot of guys on this team. It's about doing what it takes to shake hands at the end of the game.
Aaron Boone, on teammate Travis Hafner

Little did they know Hafner had Garland right where he wanted him.

Heading into this game, in situations this year in which Hafner got down in the count 0-2, he was hitting a ridiculous .312, with an .891 OPS. (If it tells you anything about what that means, that's a higher OPS than Gary Sheffield has in all situations.)

"When you get down to two strikes and you know it's a big situation," Hafner would say later, "you just try to shorten your swing."

So he shortened up to try to stay alive. And next thing you knew, that count was 3-and-2. And it was the eighth pitch of the at-bat. And Garland was thinking maybe it was time for a sneaky fastball, after getting Hafner out all night on changeups. And ...

Oops.

Hafner unleashed his magic bat one last time. And the baseball took off in a hurry, toward deep center field. Back motored center fielder Aaron Rowand, waiting for this thing to come down -- until, much to his shock, the center-field fence got in the way.

The baseball clanked off the green hitters' background in nearly dead center. The Indians led, 5-0. And it was officially safe to change the channel over to Law & Order.

Not everyone in this sport understands the art of rising to meet moments like that moment. But Travis Hafner clearly does, because he has been doing it for this team for months. If he knows the secret to that art, though, he'd be the last man on the planet to reveal it.

Asked what it was about him that enabled him to do these things at times like this, Hafner couldn't backpedal fast enough. His answer: "I just want to win games. I think everyone in this clubhouse wants to make it into the postseason. And in this stretch of games where we've played such good baseball, different guys have stepped up every night."

And that about did it for Travis Hafner's MVP campaign speech.

So we'll just have to make one for him.

Thanks to a Mark Buehrle pitch that conked Hafner in the cranium in July, sent him to the disabled list with a concussion and shoved his season off the tracks for a month, this man doesn't have the pure numbers that A-Rod or David Ortiz have. There's no denying that.

His 30 homers trail Ortiz by 16 and A-Rod by 15. His 100 RBI trail Ortiz by 40 and A-Rod by 20.

But thanks to that concussion, Hafner also has made more than 100 fewer trips to the plate than either of those guys. And even after he came back in August, "he wasn't quite the same for three or four weeks," said his buddy, Aaron Boone.

"You take that time he missed and figure out what his stats would be," Millwood said. "And I'm sure he'd be right in the middle of that (MVP) conversation."

The Great Scott
Who was that mysterious man shutting out the White Sox for 7 1/3 innings Wednesday night?

It was a guy named Scott Elarton. A guy released by the Rockies just 16 months ago. A guy who won exactly three times in 35 starts between Opening Day 2004 and the second week of May 2005. A guy who once went four years and 29 consecutive starts without winning even one game on the road -- the longest road drought in the history of baseball.

But right now, no one on the Cleveland Indians is pitching better than Elarton. He's 4-0, with a 0.92 ERA, over his last four starts. So he's come a long, long ways since the Rockies wished him a nice life in May, 2004.

Asked Wednesday if he ever could have envisioned being in this spot such a short time after crashing into the bottom of his personal canyon, Elarton replied: "No. I guess I never even thought about it. At the time, I was pretty much lost. I had no confidence. I'd been beat around so badly, I was just trying to get back into the game.

"I felt like, at the end of last year, I'd finally gotten back pretty much to where I needed to be. And I did a lot of work in the offseason that helped. But confidence is probably the biggest factor in this game. And you can't have confidence without having success to base it on. But I hadn't had success in such a long time, I was lost."

Once, Elarton was a ballyhooed No. 1 pick of the Astros who went 17-7 in his first full season in a big-league rotation. But then his shoulder started throbbing. He spent big chunks of four straight years on the disabled list. And he missed the whole season in 2002 after shoulder surgery. But now, it's safe to say he's back.

"My stuff will probably never be the same as I had coming out of the bullpen in Houston," he said. "But I feel like I'm a better pitcher now. And that's a lot more important."
-- Jayson Stark

Good point. Except for one thing: He might be in it, anyway.

There are only three players in the league with a 1.000 OPS. Ortiz and A-Rod are two of them. Hafner is the third.

There are three guys in the league whose slugging percentage tops .590. Ortiz and A-Rod are two. The third? Yup. Travis Hafner.

And you want to talk big hits, big moments, big heroics? Great as he has been, Ortiz doesn't have a 10-RBI series this year (although he did knock in eight in four games against the Yankees in July).

And while A-Rod did have a 10-RBI game against the Angels this year, it came on April 26, long before we were permitted by journalistic law to attach the word "crucial" to any game. Meanwhile, in five series against the Red Sox this year, A-Rod's biggest RBI eruption was five (also in that four-gamer in July).

So when we think about this MVP debate, are we forced to rely only on the standard cumulative stats? Or can we make allowances for special circumstances -- like concussions? And if we can, there is a more relevant question:

How many extra MVP points can we assign to men who have series like this when their teams need them most?

"I think it all factors in," Boone said. "Most valuable player. That's what it is. It means different things to different people. Personally, I think it all factors in."

After a year of playing alongside Hafner, Boone compared him to Ortiz on many levels: Strong. Disciplined. Clutch. And we'll add one more: Tremendous nickname.

Granted, it's tough to top "Big Papi" in the nickname rankings. But "Pronk" is right up there. In fact, it might even be our No. 1 overall pick in the modern nickname draft.

If nicknames don't count, though, what does count, Millwood said, that Hafner is "one of the best pure hitters I've ever seen. He can face righties, lefties. It doesn't matter. It seems like he always throws a good at-bat at you."

One thing Hafner won't throw at you is an argument for why he should barge on into the MVP conversations. But at least he has a good reason for that, Boone says:

He doesn't care if he wins or not.

"He's like a lot of guys in here," Boone said. "He's about winning the game. You hear that about a lot of guys, I know. And with most guys, it's lip service. But not with him. With him, he's like a lot of guys on this team. It's about doing what it takes to shake hands at the end of the game."

This week, in the most important series he has ever played in, Travis Hafner might have done exactly what it took for his team to shake hands all the way to October. Was it enough to allow him to say, "MVP?" Who the heck knows?

But "what it says," laughed Aaron Boone, "is that I'm glad he's on my team."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE