Wednesday, October 7, 2009

It goes on and on and on

The Metrodome had its farewell party on Sunday, but the Twins refuse to close it down. Despite already playing a 163rd game of their regular season, the Twins still decided they hadn't played enough, forcing the play-in game to go extra innings. There were enough thrilling moments to give someone a heart attack, but in the end they pulled out an AL Central Division championship, leaving the Tigers bitterly remembering the 2006 season and their last division title of 22 years ago.

The game had everything. Huge home runs, clutch hits, costly blunders, managerial miscues, costly pitching... it all added up to the most exciting Twins game I've ever been privileged to experience. [For full disclosure, I was alive for the 1991 World Series, but I was just two, and I've only been a really involved fan for about 5 years.]

Now it's on to Yankee Stadium, where the Twins are 3 for their last 29, against a team whom they lost all 7 games during the regular season, with their entire bullpen being used yesterday and Brian Duensing starting game 1. Sure, it looks pretty bad, but that was the case in early September and as late as last Thursday too. And, whatever the case, the fact that they made it to the postseason is special in its own right.

But before I conclude this, I have to look back at the game that was.

It started innocently enough, as the teams were scoreless through the first two innings. In the top of third, though, Scott Baker gave up three runs, including a Miguel Cabrera homer. But Baker settled down after that inning, and the Twins answered immediately with a run in the bottom of the third thanks to an error by Rick Porcello on a pick-off attempt.

The game remained uneventful until the sixth inning, when Jason Kubel hit a solo home run to bring Minnesota within a run. Following a walk to the next batter, Rick Porcello was lifted for Zach Miner. I don't know if it's just me, but I was surprised to see Miner in this game. He seems like a mop-up man to me, but maybe that's just my impression because he gets hit around every time the Twins see him (6.39 ERA, .919 OPS against them in 2009). Regardless, I was giddy.

Sure enough, Orlando Cabrera connected for a home run in the seventh that cleared the right field wall by about 3 millimeters and put the Twins on top 4-3. Again, though, the other team responded, as it would be all night. Having already burned through Jon Rauch and Jose Mijares in the seventh inning, Matt Guerrier stayed in for the 8th, after having gotten a huge out with two runners on in the frame before. Magglio Ordonez--who has been Joe Mauer-like the past two months--smashed a solo homer to lead off the next frame and tie the game.

After getting an out but walking two batters, Guerrier was relieved by Joe Nathan. Nathan did his job, inducing a infield fly and strikeout of Gerald Laird--who made big outs all night long--to end the threat. The bottom of the inning was quick, as the Twins went 1-2-3, which set the stage for a very nerve-wracking ninth inning.

Nathan stayed in for a second inning, but gave up two hits to start it off. Ramon Santiago pushed a excellent bunt down the first base line to get things going, and immediately I was worried. Very recently he did the same thing (I believe in the Twins 7-2 loss last Wednesday) to begin an inning, and the Tigers capitalized and scored a few runs. When Curtis Granderson followed with a single, my heart jumped to my throat. Placido Polanco stepped up to the plate, the second-toughest man to strike out in the Major Leagues this year (7.4 %). Of course Joe Nathan did it, making him look incredibly foolish as he kicked a leg out to avoid being hit, only to see the ball break back over the plate.

Still, a sacrifice fly or a even a slow roller could have put the Tigers up at this crucial juncture, but the Twins got some really good fortune when Magglio Ordonez crushed a ball that was caught by Orlando Cabrera who threw to first and got a gigantic double play. For one of many times last night, I was able to breath a huge sigh of relief.

The bottom of the ninth inning saw the Twins put a man in scoring position with one out, but Cabrera failed to get him in before Joe Mauer was intentionally walked. And up came... Carlos Gomez?! I don't argue with the move, as it was a good time to bring in a defensive replacement when Gardenhire did, but it was enormously disappointing to find him hitting when I had forgotten and thought it would be Jason Kubel. As you know, Gomez grounded out to send the extra game into extra innings.

That's where things got really shaky. Jesse Crain got the first out, hit Aubrey Huff on an 0-2 pitch, and then struck out Ryan Raburn, before Brandon Inge doubled in pinch-runner Don Kelly on a close play at the plate to give the Tigers the lead. Gerald Laird ended the inning with a groundout, but the damage had been done.

Well, damage, but not enough damage. Michael Cuddyer opened the bottom of inning with a looping fly ball to left field, and as I was screaming for it to get down I saw Raburn go into his fateful slide. The ball missed his glove and bounced past him and Curtis Granderson as I began shouting "Go, go, go!' Cuddyer hustled into third base to put the Twins in great position. I cursed out Delmon Young as he grounded out weakly on the first pitch, and Brendan Harris followed him with a walk. That meant it was up to Matt Tolbert and Nick Punto to keep the Twins' season alive.

Tolbert battled in his at bat and sent a bouncing ball up the middle, and I dropped to my knees as I saw Polanco closing in on it for a sure double play; somehow, though, it scooted through and Cuddyer scored to tie the game! Not only that, but pinch runner Alexi Casilla was now on third base still with only one out. Now Nick Punto had a chance to extend the Metrodome's life. And that he did, but by lining into a double play that meant there would be another inning in this play-in game. Raburn tried to atone for his earlier blunder by gunning down Casilla at home on an extremely close play. Casilla had a great slide, but he wouldn't have needed it if he hadn't been so late getting back to tag up. Nonetheless, the game continued.

The eleventh inning featured little excitement, as Crain, Ron Mahay, and Bobby Keppel each got an out in the top half and the Twins went 1-2-3 in the bottom half followed by the Twins going down in order in their half. That left Keppel to face the Tigers in the twelfth inning, the same guy who I had vehemently not wanted to see enter the game when he started warming up with Baker struggling in the third.

With one out, Keppel allowed runners to reach second and third before intentionally walking Raburn to load the bases. He then got Brandon Inge to ground into a force out at home on a great play by Nick Punto. With two outs and the bases still loaded, Keppel fell behind 2-0 and then 3-1 on Gerald Laird. As I struggled to contain myself, screaming angrily about what I would do if he walked in the go-ahead run, Keppel got a called second strike and then a swinging strike from Laird to finish the inning. For Laird, it was yet another big out and a nice capper on his 0-6 night.

In Minnesota's half-inning, Carlos Gomez was again batting instead of Jason Kubel, but this time he answered with a single to left field. As Fernando Rodney was in his fourth inning, I figured it was about time the Twins made Jim Leyland pay for that decision. Michael Cuddyer did his part by advancing Gomez to second, bringing up Delmon with the winning run in scoring position. He didn't get a chance, though, as Rodney gave him an intentional free pass to first base with two of the lightest-hitting players in the game due up: Alexi Casilla and Matt Tolbert.

Some people think it was a mistake to walk Young, but I wholeheartedly disagree. For the Tigers, the choice was a) pitch to Young and then Casilla with no force or b) pitch to Casilla and Tolbert with a force at second and third. That seems like a no-brainer to me. The .198 hitter then strolled to the plate, and I was reminded of last year against Chicago when he made the final out of the Twins' season, but also of the second game of the year, when he singled in two runs with two outs to give the Twins a 6-5 walk-off victory.

Oh, how similar that second memory was, as Casilla sent a ball bounding between the first and second baseman that, as you could tell immediately, would score Gomez from second and send the Twins into the postseason on the strength of a 6-5 victory over the Tigers. And Casilla got his own personal reward as his average went up to .202, sparing him the ignominy of being below the Mendoza line for the season.

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