"I wanted to give [the Mariners] a good impression," Valbuena said through an interpreter. "I was very happy I did it against them."
Truth is, the Indians really didn't do much offensively in this one, though they did see their stretch of 10 home games without a home run come to a glorious close not just with Valbuena's blast but also through Travis Hafner's fourth-inning solo shot.
The Tribe didn't notch a hit from the fifth inning until Valbuena went deep in the 11th. They won this game because starter Aaron Laffey righted himself after a troublesome first inning and the bullpen -- in this case, Chris Perez, Kerry Wood, Tony Sipp, Joe Smith and Rafael Perez -- was on top of its game with four scoreless innings of work.
Laffey found himself in an early bind. He walked Franklin Gutierrez with one out in the first, and Mike Sweeney ripped a single to right. Shin-Soo Choo tried to nab Gutierrez as he streaked into third, and Choo's throw was errant, allowing Gutierrez to score. Russell Branyan then went deep on a two-run blast to make it 3-0.
"That first inning, everything was up," Laffey said. "I wasn't finishing my pitches or holding onto the ball long enough."
But Laffey talked himself through the issue and turned in another strong outing. Those three runs were all he allowed in seven innings of work. The Mariners would never seriously threaten him again, and Laffey's offense prevented him from being saddled with the loss.
The Indians got on the board in the third, but they missed out on a bigger opportunity in the process. The Tribe had the bases loaded with none out, but Asdrubal Cabrera grounded into a double play. Matt LaPorta, who had singled, scored from third, but the chance for a larger rally was all but erased.
In the fourth, Hafner pulled the Tribe within a run, 3-2, when he launched his solo shot into the Tribe bullpen in center field. It was the first homer by a Tribe player at home since back on Aug. 2, when Grady Sizemore went deep against the Tigers. The 10 home games without a homer was the longest stretch by a Tribe club since June 1991.
The Indians tied the game in the seventh by taking advantage of an error. Valbuena led the inning off and reached on a fielding foible by left fielder Michael Saunders. After Kelly Shoppach was struck by a pitch on a bunt attempt, LaPorta twice was unable to get a sacrifice bunt down. But LaPorta check-swung at a two-strike pitch, and the ball dribbled toward the mound for a 1-3 groundout that moved the runners over anyway. And when Andy Marte lifted a sacrifice fly to center off reliever Mark Lowe, the score was knotted at 3.
Laffey was thankful for the support and happy he found a way to recover from the first.
"If I get out of that first inning without those hassles," Laffey said, "it would be a great outing instead of just a good one."
Laffey has turned in plenty of good outings lately. He's allowed just six earned runs over his past four starts. This was as impressive as any of them for the way he rebounded quickly.
"That was as impressive as anything we've seen from him this year," manager Eric Wedge said.
Equally impressive was the 'pen under duress. Chris Perez gave up a leadoff double to Sweeney in the eighth, and pinch-runner Ryan Langerhans moved to third on a wild pitch. But Perez powered his way past Branyan and Bill Hall for strikeouts and got Kenji Johjima to ground out to end the threat.
In the ninth, the closer Wood gave up a leadoff walk, then worked his way out of the jam. And in the 10th, Sipp surrendered a leadoff double to Jose Lopez and a sac bunt to Langerhans, then got Branyan to strike out. Smith relieved Sipp to strike out Hall and end the inning.
"They weren't easy innings," Wedge said of the 'pen's performance, "especially in that type of ballgame. We really had to work the bullpen, and they stepped up."
Still, no one was stepping up on offense. LaPorta's infield single in the fifth was the last hit for a long while. And the 11th inning hardly looked promising. The Mariners sent in the right-handed Messenger, and he promptly retired Jhonny Peralta and Pronk.
But Valbuena, who has made extra-base hits his bread and butter, didn't let the fact that he was 0-for-4 get in the way of his becoming the hero. Messenger sent him a 2-0 fastball up in the zone, and Valbuena turned on it and sent it hurtling into the right-field corner. The ball stayed fair, and the Indians walked away winners.
"That ball didn't hook," Wedge said. "He squared it up and kept it fair."
Valbuena said he'd never hit a walk-off homer in his pro career. He quickly learned what a joy it is as he rounded the bases and saw his teammates ready to pounce on him at the plate.
"I was running on air," he said with a smile.