Back on October 27, 1991, the Twins and Braves played the final game of a series at the Metrodome. Two great pitchers faced off and a pitcher's duel ensued. In that late October game, which happened to be the deciding Game 7 of one of the greatest World Series of all time, Atlanta starter John Smoltz pitched his heart out and delivered 7 1/3 shutout innings only to watch the game slip away with a late walk-off hit for the Twins. Smoltz was dominant, pitching into the eighth inning and never allowing the Twins to mount a significant threat, but in the end he found himself in the dugout watching his hard work go to waste as unlikely hero Gene Larkin knocked in the winning run in the bottom of the 10th inning to clinch a World Championship for the Minnesota Twins.
Last night's sweep-clinching victory for the Twins was astonishingly similar in some ways to that incredible ballgame, which took place over 15 years ago. Last night, the Braves' starter was Tim Hudson. Like Smoltz, Hudson delivered 7 1/3 innings of shutout ball, allowing just two hits and a walk while inducing 15 ground balls from the Minnesota lineup. Unlike Smoltz, Hudson left the game with a lead, 2-0, but Hudson would similarly have to watch that lead turn into a loss as the Twins rallied for three runs in the bottom of the ninth to capture a 3-2 victory.
The improbable rally began when Luis Castillo singled against Braves' closer Bob Wickman to lead off the ninth. In the next at-bat, Joe Mauer grounded out to short, with Castillo moving up to second safely because he was stealing on the pitch. Up next was Michael Cuddyer, who stepped up and delivered a game-breaking triple down the left field line. Aaron Gleeman poked fun at me last year for chiding Cuddyer's inability to deliver meaningful hits early in the season, and I can look back now and say it was fully deserved. The statements I made back then have subsequently proven to be some of the dumbest I have made in my life, as Cuddyer has stepped up again and again in clutch situations to deliver huge hits. I don't recall many that were as big as last night's; by tripling in Castillo, Cuddyer was able to cut the Twins' deficit to one while putting himself on third base representing the tying run with one out. Justin Morneau came up and hit a grounder to first which was mishandled by Jarrod Saltalamacchia, which brought Torii Hunter to the plate with runners on the corner and one out. Hunter's task was to hit the ball out of the infield, but he did almost exactly the opposite by tapping a slow dribbler to third. Fortunately, Atlanta third baseman Yunel Escobar's throw to the plate sailed high, allowing Cuddyer to score the tying run while Morneau moved to third and Hunter moved to second.
And then it was up to another scrappy bench player to come through with the winning hit. Mike Redmond may not have been as unlikely a hero as Gene Larkin, but he delivered in similar fashion, smashing a line drive to left field for a game-winning base hit. While the stakes were much lower in this mid-June interleague game, Redmond's teammates rushed the field with the type of excitement and joy on their faces that came across those of the 1991 team when Dan Gladden hopped gleefully across home plate with the winning run.
For his part, Johan Santana wasn't exactly in Jack Morris form, but he pitched well enough to keep his team in the game and make possible their late comeback. The Braves handled Santana in much the same fashion as many other opponents have this year; working deep into counts and forcing him to throw a fairly high number of pitches. The Braves drew three walks off Santana and forced him to throw 109 pitches over seven innings despite the fact that he allowed just two runs on five hits. Still, Santana was effective, striking out nine and pitching around the walks to piece together a good outing. Santana did surrender a home run, marking the 11th time in 14 starts this year that he has allowed at least one, but as long as he continues to uphold a 3.19 ERA and .225 BAA, you won't find me complaining.
I wasn't old enough to truly appreciate the magic that took place back in '91, but I do remember that series helping to spark my love of baseball, and games like last night's are the reason that love continues to exist.