Deadlines. Timeliness. Two words that don't really exist on this blog.
Twin #2. A writer who seemingly doesn't exist on this blog. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)
But nonetheless, I have completed one of my favorite entries of every year, even if it wasn't in the most timely of manners. Today I will count down the top ten moments of the Twins' 2009 season. There were many tough choices this year, as the Twins received remarkable individual performances and had a stunning September rally to capture the division crown. Unfortunately many of the highlights were negative, which I usually try to avoid, but they were just too memorable to avoid choosing them. Without further ado, the list...
5/13- Crede hits walk-off Grand Slam in 13th inning
5/22- Michael Cuddyer hits for the cycle
6/5- Twins win in extras even after Kubel is robbed of home run
8/14- Baker pitches two-hit shutout in 11-0 win
9/19- Twins rally in 8th against Tigers to win sixth in a row
9/29- Twins win first game of doubleheader and series against Tigers in 10th
10. Joe Mauer homers in his return from the Disabled List (May 1st vs. Kansas City)
Joe Mauer had followed up his disappointing 2007 season with another excellent year in 2008, leading the American League in batting average for the second time in three years. The 2009 season, however, didn't seem like it would bring more of the same, as Mauer spent the first month on the DL after offseason surgery. Jose Morales and Mike Redmond filled in and, despite their best efforts, they had no chance of replacing Mauer's contributions. Sitting at 11-11, and middling in the always-winnable AL Central, Mauer's return was a very welcome sight. Facing the Royals and Sidney Ponson, Joe Mauer came to the plate in the bottom of the first inning with two outs and nobody on base. After taking the first two pitches for balls, Mauer uncoiled his first swing of the 2009 season, connecting for a home run to left-center. It was a sign of things to come, as Mauer set career highs in just about every offensive category, including home runs (28), RBIs (96), batting average (.365), OBP (.444), SLG (.587), and OPS (1.031). He was also tops in the league in the last three categories on his way to being named American League MVP.
9. Twins slaughter White Sox 20-1 (May 21st at Chicago)
It was a rough patch for the Twins. Coming into this game, they'd suffered six consecutive losses. The first four were in heartbreaking fashion, all to the hated Yankees, as you just might read more about later in this countdown. Following that, they lost the first two games of their series against the rival White Sox. Of those six games, they had leads in five of them. They lost all six by a total of twelve runs. For all those reasons, this game was the perfect antidote. The Twins banged out 7 runs in the second innings to take an 8-0 lead. They would score at least 4 runs in two other innings. They had 20 hits. They scored 20 runs. Five Twins had at least three hits. Joe Mauer hit a grand slam. Even Matt Tolbert added a three-run homer. The White Sox did manage to push a run across in the eighth inning, which unfortunately prevented the shutout, but it was a perfect evening otherwise.
8. Twins beat Greinke to tie Detroit atop division (October 3rd vs. Kansas City)
Trailing the Tigers by 1 game with two to play, the Twins faced a tall task on this saturday afternoon. Sure, they were playing the Royals, but Zack Greinke would be starting for Kansas City. The same Zack Greinke who would win the 2009 AL Cy Young. Who had a league-leading 2.06 ERA and 1.07 WHIP at the time. Who had allowed 2 earned runs over his last 6 starts (42 innings), good for a 0.43 ERA. Who had just handled the Twins 5 days ago in his previous start, giving up a sole run over 7 innings. Through 5 innings, that storyline continued, as Greinke and Nick Blackburn traded zeros. In the bottom of the sixth, however, the Twins broke through, scoring 4 runs and seemingly putting the game out of reach. Blackburn pitched one more inning, and allowed a solo home run, before being removed after giving up a lead-off double in the eighth. The relief corps of Jose Mijares and Jon Rauch fell flat on their faces, as they permitted the Royals to tie the game by the time the inning was over. Tied at 4, the Twins desperately needed a hero. And Michael Cuddyer did just that, putting the Twins ahead for good with a solo home run of his own in the bottom half of the inning. After Joe Nathan closed it out, the Twins knew they would not be eliminated regardless of the outcome of Detroit's game that night. When Detroit lost, and the Twins pulled even atop the Central with just one day left in the regular season, it was even better.
7. Cuddyer hits two home runs in one inning (August 23rd at Kansas City)
Again the Twins met the Royals for a day game, but this time it was a late-August matchup which saw the Twins struggling to stay afloat in the division race. Mired 3 games below .500, at 60-63, even the most die hard fans were grasping for reasons why they shouldn't give up hope. Tied at one apiece entering the seventh, the game looked like it would be a nail-biter. Instead, the Twins exploded in the inning, scoring 8 times on 8 hits, and putting the game well out of reach. Michael Cuddyer led the charge, as he became the first Twin ever to homer twice in one inning. He started the inning with a solo shot off starter Brian Bannister, and was followed by a double, three singles, a triple, a sacrifice fly, another single, and a strikeout. Then it was Cuddyer's turn again, and he connected a second time, this one coming off reliever Kyle Farnsworth, making Twins history in the process.
6. Kubel leads comeback by hitting for the cycle (April 17th vs. Los Angeles)
Games in April have a hard time making this list for an obvious reason: they offer none of the pennant race excitement that games in September and October do. But when a huge comeback combines with a special individual performance, it's enough to slot in at #6. In this case, Minnesota trailed the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim 9-4 with six outs to go. The Twins had already scored 3 runs in the eighth inning before Justin Morneau came to the plate with 2 outs and runners on 2nd and 3rd. The Angels wanted nothing to do with Morneau, walking him intentionally and bringing Jason Kubel to the plate with the bases loaded, 2 outs, and the Twins behind by 2 runs. Kubel already had a single, a double, and a triple in the game, so he just needed a home run for the cycle. But to tie the game, all he needed was a single. Of course, you know what happened: Kubel launched a grand slam into the right field bleachers, giving the Twins a 2-run lead and an eventual victory, and completing the ninth cycle in Twins history.
5. Twins lose on third straight walk-off at Yankee Stadium (May 17th at New York)
On Friday it was Joe Nathan surrendering a 2-run lead in the ninth, capped by a 2-out, 2-run walk-off single by Melky Cabrera. On Saturday it was Craig Breslow serving up a walk-off 2-run homer to Alex Rodriguez in the 11th inning. And on Sunday it was Jesse Crain allowing a walk-off homer from Johnny Damon in the 10th inning. (Oh, and just to be cruel, they threw in an extra game on Monday, which the Twins would also lose by one run, albeit not on a walk-off). The Twins' troubles at Yankee Stadium had been well documented, and this was their first opportunity to prove New Yankee Stadium would not give them the same problems. So much for that. It was only the precursor, though, as they would go on to lose all 10 games they played against the Yankees in 2009, including 3 high-profile games that you might remember, and that will certainly appear a little later on this list.
4. Twins blow 10-run lead and lose when Cuddyer is thrown out at home (July 20th at Oakland)
This was a laugher. The Twins scored 3 in the first, 5 in the second, and 4 in the third. They led 12-2 after two and a half frames. Justin Morneau had already homered twice, including a grand slam, and driven in 7 runs. As a team, the Twins had already smashed four home runs. Oakland did respond with 5 runs combined in the third and fourth, but another insurance run on a Delmon Young sacrifice fly put the Twins up 13-7. The A's win probability had moved from 1.1 % (before the bottom of the third) to 2.1 % following the top of the seventh, but it was still a miniscule chance of victory. And then, all of a sudden, it wasn't, as Matt Guerrier and Bobby Keppel gave it all back in a hurry. Orlando Cabrera drove in two runs with a double and Matt Holliday tied the game with a grand slam, before Jose Mijares was brought in. He fared no better, as he allowed a go-ahead home run to the next batter, Jack Cust. The score remained there, 14-13, until the tninth inning rolled around. With first and second base occupied and two outs and Delmon Young batting, Michael Wuertz uncorked a breaking ball that bounced wildly in front of home plate. As Michael Cuddyer sprinted toward third base, he realized that catcher Kurt Suzuki was having trouble locating the ball, and made up his mind to head all the way home. Cuddyer slid in just ahead of the tag, as replays would conclusively prove, but was called out to end the game and complete a historic collapse by Minnesota.
3. Twins are eliminated from playoffs in last game at Metrodome (October 11th vs. New York)
Down two games to none to the Yankees in the AL Divisional Series, there was a very real possibility that this would be the final game the Twins would ever play at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. The game was a pitcher's duel, with Carl Pavano and Andy Pettitte combining for 11 scoreless inning to begin the game. A 2-out RBI single by Joe Mauer finally put the Twins on the board--and in front 1-0--in the home half of the sixth. Pavano, however, gave up solo homers to Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada and the Twins couldn't muster anything else. Their best chance came in the eighth inning when Nick Punto led off with a double and Denard Span followed with an infield single. Unfortunately, as you probably remember, Punto rounded third base too aggressively, thinking the ball had gone through to the outfield, fell down putting on the brakes, and got tagged out returning to third base. The Twins' threat was neutralized, the Yankees scored two more in the ninth to take out any drama from the final half-inning, and the Twins bid farewell to the Metrodome. Despite a brilliant performance from Pavano, including a franchise record for strikeouts in a postseason game (9), and a crowd Pettitte described afterward as the loudest he'd ever heard, the 2009 season had come to an end.
2. Twins can't capitalize on numerous chances and lose Game 2 (October 9th at New York)
Boy, was this tough. After predictably falling in Game 1 of the ALDS, with Brian Duensing going up against C.C. Sabathia and having played the night before in Minnesota, the Twins took a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 2. Just 3 runs, despite collecting 8 hits, drawing 6 walks, and getting hit by 2 pitches. They could have certainly had one more had Carlos Gomez not gotten thrown out rounding second before Delmon Young touched home plate earlier in the game. And all that could have been overlooked, if only Joe Nathan could have closed the door. But he didn't, as Alex Rodriguez tied the game with a homer before Nathan could even get an out. It still could have been overlooked when the Twins put two runners on in the 10th, but again they failed to score. It was all okay, though, as Minnesota loaded the bases in the 11th with zero outs, despite Phil Cuzzi's horrendous call of a foul ball on Joe Mauer's double. This time everything would be all right. Of course, it wasn't--Delmon Young lined out, Carlos Gomez grounded into a force out at home, and Brendan Harris ended the inning with a flyout. Mark Teixeira capitalized immediately for the Yankees, sending a laser down the left field line and into the seats for a walk-off homer. At Yankee Stadium. Again.
1. Twins defeat Detroit in epic play-in game (October 6th vs. Detroit)
That's enough with the negative. You knew this would be here at #1. In 2008, it was the White Sox and Twins playing an extra game to decide the AL Central title. This year, it was the Tigers and the Twins, and this time the Twins would emerge victorious. Forced to play on Tuesday because of the Vikings' Monday Night Football game in the Metrodome, the game had to start before prime time so the winning team could get to New York at a reasonable hour for their game the next day. That plan went out the window, as the team battled for 4 hours and 37 minutes, also meaning I had to show up 2 1/2 hours late to work.
To the game itself, though. Detroit took a 3-0 lead early, but the Twins chipped away until Orlando Cabrera's homer, which cleared the wall by about six inches, put them ahead 4-3 in the seventh inning. However, Detroit's next batter, Magglio Ordonez, clocked a game-tying home run, and from that point on it was nothing short of a dog-fight. Two teams left it all on the field in their pursuit of a postseason berth. Detroit had the first chances, with two on and one out in the eighth, but Joe Nathan stopped that threat. In the ninth, a perfectly executed bunt single and a bloop single to right field put runners on the corners with none out. Joe Nathan stepped up, not just striking out Placido Polanco, but also making him look like a 2nd grade girl at the plate (seriously, when you look like this as the ball is crossing home plate, you've been humiliated) and then inducing a line-out double play. Next up, the Twins had a man on second with one out in their half of the inning, but nothing came of it. The Tigers followed with a run in the top of the tenth on a double by Brandon Inge, leaving the Twins three outs from elimination.
It wasn't over yet, though. Michael Cuddyer started the inning with a seemingly innocuous fly ball to left field, but Ryan Raburn turned it into a triple. He took a needless risk on a sliding catch (although it really wasn't that difficult--I'd say he probably should have caught it) and as the ball bounded toward the outfield wall, Cuddyer motored to third, almost oversliding the base in his effort. Two batters later, with runners on the corners and one out, Matt Tolbert hit a ground ball up the middle. To me, it immediately appeared to be a game-ending double play, but by the smallest of margins it squeaked past both Polanco and Adam Everett and knotted the game at 5, and now putting the Twins in a position to win the game with runners on the corners and out again. Nick Punto lofted a soft liner to shallow left, and Alexi Casilla raced home, only to be tagged out just in time and end the inning. The game would continue.
After both teams went 1-2-3 in the eleventh, Bobby Keppel stayed in to pitch the twelfth inning for Minnesota. He struggled mightily, loading the bases with just one out, before he got a grounder to second base that Punto was able to throw home in time for a force out. Then it was what every kid dreamed of: bases loaded, 2 outs, tie game. Up strode Gerald Laird, who got ahead 3-1 against Keppel. I hadn't sat down in hours, but I became more tense than I had been at any point. Laird fouled off Keppel's next offering, filling the count at 3-2. Keppel reared back and fired one low possibly just out of the strike zone, and Laird swung over the top for strike three.
And the rest is history. Carlos Gomez singled and moved to second on a Cuddyer groundout. Delmon Young was intentionally walked and then Alexi Casilla came to the plate with one out and a chance to win the game. And he did, singling to right and finishing off an amazing game and an amazing late-season run.