Thursday, September 25, 2008

One Half Game

In this season, who would have ever thought that a victory as big as last night's would come down to an exceptional performance from the bullpen, highlighted by a guy with a 5.96 ERA and a 23-year-old with six innings of major-league experience? Maybe it shouldn't be that surprising. After all, this has been a year of unexpected contributions for the Twins. But now this crazy season has led the Twins here: half a game out of first place with four left to play, and in position to overtake the division lead with a win tomorrow night.

Bouncing back from a pair of rough starts (which, it should be noted, both came on the road against solid offenses), Blackburn tossed five innings of two-run ball in the biggest game of his career. He was hardly dazzling, as indicated by the eight hits and two walks allowed, but he squirmed out of some sticky situations and handed a lead over to the bullpen.

And there we stood. In what amounted to a must-win game, the Twins were looking to their bullpen -- a unit that has been the bane of every fan's existence all year -- to protect a one-run lead for four innings.

Ron Gardenhire hardly went the conventional route. No Matt Guerrier. No Jesse Crain. No Dennys Reyes. Instead, he called upon Craig Breslow, Boof Bonser and Jose Mijares to bridge the gap to Joe Nathan. And you know what? The plan worked splendidly. The four relievers combined for four innings of one-hit, shutout ball, fending off the Sox and carrying the Twins to victory despite the offense's inability to add any insurance runs.

Gardenhire deserves signficant credit for the way he's managed in this series. He went against his better judgment in Game 1, playing Jason Kubel over Michael Cuddyer despite Cuddyer's far superior career numbers against Javier Vazquez. That move played huge dividends, as Kubel went on to have a monster night and lead a power attack from the Twins offense. Last night, Gardy went with an unconventional cast of relievers -- three guys who weren't members of the bullpen at the onset of the season -- to pitch perhaps the three most important innings of the season up to this point. And all three came through in flying colors.

The play of the game, though, came in the ninth inning after all three of those hurlers had put in their work. With Nathan on the hill trying to slam the door, A.J. Pierzynski ripped a line drive into the left-center field gap. Off the bat, this ball seemed unquestionable destined to fall in for at least a double. But as the camera flashed to that outfield, Carlos Gomez came streaking across the screen. Somehow, someway, Gomez reached up and snagged the liner in full stride. Considering the significance and the degree of difficulty, I can say without hyperbole that it was one of the very greatest catches I have ever seen.

Which is funny, because just about an hour earlier, I'd been a guest on Seth Stohs live podcast (which you can listen to here, if you're so inclined) and in response to a question about Gomez and his 2009 outlook, I made an emphatic point that a great deal of the center fielder's value was tied up in his phenomenal defense. It seems like poetic justice that just a few innings later he reinforced my point by making such a fantastic, perhaps season-saving catch.

Just an awesome game. And tonight the Twins can finish their improbable rise to first place by completing the sweep. They'll get a much more favorable match-up with Kevin Slowey squaring off against Gavin Floyd. And, in a devastating example of poetic injustice, I won't be able to watch it. Nor any of what figures to be a colossally important series against the Royals this weekend. For this morning at 6:10 am I will be boarding a plane and, as the Dropkick Murphys would say, "shipping up to Boston." It figures that when the four most exciting regular-season games in my memory take place, I'll be thousands of miles away on a trip I planned long ago. But I'll be keeping a watchful eye from the East Coast, and I'll be back with a full report on everything come Monday morning.

The Twins have muscled their way right back into the thick of the race with a couple magical games at the Metrodome over the past two days. But the journey is far from over, and now is not the time for complacency to set in. They need to maintain the fire that they've shown over the past two games, both tonight and over the weekend.

I will return from Boston on Sunday evening. I sure hope there will be some more Twins baseball for me to watch.

4 comments:

Nibbish said...

That was a fantastic game. When A.J. hit that drive, I had visions of double and a heartbreaking loss all queued up, then Gomez comes out of nowhere and saves the season. The bar I was in erupted.

I couldn't agree more, one of the best catches I've ever seen.

Beau said...

I think those kind of balls is where Gomez really gets a chance to shine. Easy to read off the bat and he can just use his blazing speed to get there.

And from personal experience as a right-handed outfielder, it is way easier catching balls to your right (across your body) than to your left. I'm not sure why that is.

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