It was a game filled with miscues and missed opportunities on both sides. It featured substandard players being forced into extremely high-leverage situations. It was the most important game of the Twins' season, and it ended with Carlos Gomez batting in the cleanup spot, Alexi Casilla batting in the DH spot, and Bobby Keppel as the Minnesota pitcher of record. It was also one of the best baseball games I've ever seen, and certainly the best I've ever personally witnessed.
The 163rd game of the Twins' season was a four-and-a-half hour battle of attrition, ending in the bottom of the 12th inning when Casilla -- who had entered the game having amassed a total of 16 plate appearances since the beginning of September -- atoned for a brutal baserunning error just two innings earlier by singling in Gomez to lift the Twins to a 6-5 victory over the Tigers and a division title. This came after Keppel, a career minor-league journeyman who served mostly as a mop-up man out of the Twins bullpen this season, had preserved the tie game in the top half of the inning by escaping a bases-loaded jam with a strikeout. It was only one of several occasions in which it appeared the Twins were all but defeated, yet they continually clawed back into game and ultimately were able to cap off an improbable late-season comeback in the standings with one of the most improbable victories you will ever see. Could there have been a more fitting finale to this 2009 Twins season?
In order to truly comprehend what an absurd roller coaster of a baseball game this tiebreaker was, let's run it back from the start.
Tigers starter Rick Porcello looked absolutely stellar through the early innings, blowing Twins hitters away with mid-90s heat and looking nothing like the worn-down hurler who had struck out only 10 hitters in 36 1/3 September innings and prompted his manager to start limiting his innings during the final weeks of the season. Over the first five frames, Porcello allowed only three hits and struck out seven Twins hitters. The 20-year-old rookie showed no signs of nerves aside from possibly a couple breaking pitches that bounced before the plate and a wild pick-off throw to first base that led to the Twins' only run during that span.
By the time the bottom of the sixth rolled around, the Tigers had accumulated a 3-1 lead thanks to a rough third inning for Scott Baker, and the Metrodome's crowd of 54,000 had fallen into a stunned silence. Porcello was cruising and the Twins were being thoroughly outplayed. Then Jason Kubel delivered a mammoth home run to right-center field with two outs, and suddenly the Dome's atmosphere transformed dramatically. The enormous crowd awakened from their lull and erupted as Michael Cuddyer followed Kubel's homer with a walk. That was the end of the night for Porcello. Jim Leyland went to right-hander Zach Miner, who promptly put two more runners on with a single and a hit by pitch to load the bases. Miner managed to induce a fly ball to escape the inning, but the Twins had moved back within one run and the massive crowd had been awakened. This game was just getting started.
The Twins went through three relievers in the top of the seventh but Matt Guerrier managed to strand runners on first and third and escape unscathed. In the bottom of the inning, Orlando Cabrera delivered a two-run blast to put the Twins in front 4-3. The lead was quickly relinquished in the top of the eighth when Guerrier surrendered a leadoff homer to Magglio Ordonez. The Tigers subsequently put two more runners on with walks, but Nathan entered the game and retired the next two batters to escape the jam and preserve the tie. This would become a theme.
In the top of the ninth, Nathan again found himself facing a daunting jam with runners on first and third and nobody out. Nathan absolutely needed a strikeout, but Placido Polanco -- one of the toughest players in the majors to ring up -- was stepping up to the plate. The Twins closer managed to freeze Polanco with a nasty curveball for a called third strike, but the crisis was far from averted as Ordonez dug in with runners on the corners and one out. Ordonez ripped a hard liner off Nathan that looked like a go-ahead hit off the bat, but fortunately the ball flew straight at the shortstop Cabrera, who quickly fired over to first to double off Curtis Granderson.
In the top of the 10th, Jesse Crain yielded a two-out double to Brandon Inge, scoring Don Kelly (who had pinch-run for Aubrey Huff after Huff was hit by a pitch) from first and putting the Tigers on top by a run. The Metrodome crowd was once again sapped of its energy, but they quickly regained it in the bottom half of the inning when a crucial defensive misplay by the Tigers put the Twins in position to pull even once again.
Cuddyer led off the inning with a soft liner to left field. Ryan Raburn charged the ball and foolishly tried to make a diving catch rather than playing it on a bounce for a single. The ball skipped past the diving Raburn and rolled to the wall, enabling Cuddyer to reach third with no outs. He scored on a Matt Tolbert base hit later in the inning to tie the game. The Twins had an opportunity to claim victory one batter later when Nick Punto ended a great at-bat by hitting a line drive to medium-deep left field, but Casilla -- who had reached third on Tolbert's single after coming on to pinch-run for Brendan Harris -- had wandered off the base rather than staying put on the liner. He scurried back to tag up as Raburn caught the ball in left, but due to the lost momentum he was late to reach home plate and Raburn's excellent throw beat him for the third out. A prime opportunity had been wasted.
By the time the top of the 12th rolled around, the Twins had burned through six relievers and were down to the last man in the bullpen, Keppel. Not surprisingly, Keppel worked himself into trouble by loading the bases with one out. Brandon Inge hit a bouncer up the middle that Punto fielded and threw home for a heady force play, leaving the bases loaded with two outs. In the next at-bat, Keppel fell behind Gerald Laird but managed to battle back into a full count and ultimately got Laird to strike out chasing ball four to leave the bases loaded. The Tigers had missed a tremendous opportunity of their own, and it was starting to seem like neither team was going to take advantage of all the chances they were being given.
That ended in the bottom of the 12th. Gomez led off with a base hit and then moved into scoring position on Cuddyer's groundout. Delmon Young was intentionally walked to bring up Casilla and his .198 batting average. Casilla laced a grounder between second and first, Gomez raced around third base and dove into home and the Twins stormed the field to celebrate their first division title since 2006.
There are so many things that have yet to soak in. In the victory, Joe Mauer locked up his third batting title in four years. The thriller was the final regular-season baseball game ever to be played in the Metrodome, and also impressively the most well-attended regular-season game in the stadium's history. Ron Gardenhire ran through seven relievers after pulling Baker in the seventh but managed to coax six innings of two-run ball out of his bullpen. The Twins became the first team ever to overcome a three-game deficit with four games remaining, the first team this century to reach the postseason in their final year before moving into a new stadium, and probably the first team to do a whole bunch of other stuff.
All of these things deserve discussion, but as we speak the Twins are already in New York preparing to take on the Yankees in an ALDS series that begins at 5 o'clock central time this evening.
I'll try to get a preview of Game One up sometime this afternoon, so be sure to check back. For now, I'm absolutely exhausted.
The Minnesota Twins, your 2009 AL Central Champs, against all odds. What a season.