The winner of Sunday’s final game in the series between the Twins and the Rangers will consider it consolation for a tough loss, for both teams have had one of those. The Twins scraped a victory on Friday, 3-2, while the Rangers won 3-0 yesterday. The shutout was brutal, of course, but it wasn’t as if the Rangers were feasting on Twins pitching either—two runs were assembled in a minor outburst in the first inning, with a solo homer in the ninth to complete the bookend.
So the game today must really decide the series. And it’s not so much which of these two teams has the better rotation, bullpen, or batting order. No, the real question is which one is ready to contend for postseason play.
The Rangers are trying to catch the Red Sox for the AL wild card. At 2-1/2 games back as of today, the dream is very real. They must also shake off the pesky Rays, two games behind them but perhaps looking winded—they just gave up Scott Kazmir to the Angels at the trading deadline, which looks like a surrender flag to me.
The Twins have no real hope of the wild card, but the Central division crown is within reach, thanks, largely to Detroit’s failure to fortify themselves in the top spot. The Twins have edged ahead of the White Sox for second place, but that’s still a full 4-1/2 games back.
Both the Twins and the Rangers have been showing off their pitching in this series, including the Twins’ newly-appointed bullpen. Considering the collective hitting prowess of these two teams, not to mention the presence of baseball’s current batting champ, hits and runs have been eerily scarce.
On Sunday, Scott Baker started for the Twins, and had two sharp innings, only to fall into his typical pit in the third inning. The recipe for trouble with Baker is: lots of pitches, including a steady, dreary rain of foul balls, plus two or three hits strung together for a run. It never looks like bad pitching until it’s over.
Baker was only touched for one run this time, on an RBI single from Elvis Andrus following a double from Ivan Rodriguez. If you ever want to remind yourself how thin the line between losing and winning can be, dissect a Scott Baker inning. Rodriguez’s hit came on a pretty good pitch, and though I didn’t see what Andrus hit, I doubt it was a howler of a mistake. Yet the Rangers were on the scoreboard first.
Baker bounced back with a quick 1-2-3 fourth inning, while the Twins collected isolated hits and walks for three innings, but couldn’t push anyone all the way around the merry-go-round.
In the bottom of the fourth, the Twins punch through the tissue paper between success and failure. They start the inning with a Justin Morneau double followed by a beefy Jason Kubel home run to right. Lead reversed on a single pitch, and the Twins were up 2-1.
Kevin Millwood, starting for the Rangers, has the nutty career distinction of never having beaten Minnesota. When Kubel rapped that homer, he may have realized he wasn’t going to complete that quest in the Metrodome itself. He will have to take the project on to Target Field next year.
Before the inning ended, Mike Redmond, typically the Twins Sunday catcher, hit a sharp line drive that rattled up to the base of the wall, giving the slow-footed Redmond more than enough time to collect a triple. He was exulting on third base while the cameras caught a dancing Carlos Gomez and a laughing Ron Gardenhire in a dugout that was celebrating Redmond’s three-bagger.
No, Redmond never scored and the triple isn’t significant, but the little sense of joy I saw there reminded me that playoff teams operate on fun as well as skill. The Twins were enjoying themselves today, close game or not.
Baker followed with a 1-2-3 fifth and an easy sixth to show the Rangers he can confine his woes to single innings, and single runs.
However, he had one more bad inning, and again, it was barely bad but it was bad enough to make a difference. A two-run homer from Nelson Cruz put the Rangers back on top, 3-2.
Time for another test of the potentially contending team. The Rangers passed theirs by snatching back the lead, and the Twins had a golden chance in the seventh, against reliever Jason Grilli. With one out, Denard Span doubled and Alexi Casilla followed with a hard-earned walk. That brings Joe Mauer to the plate.
Screenwriters must flinch when trying to write the story of a baseball game. I mean, how realistic is it to put your star player in the batter’s box with the game on the line? But it’s precisely what we have this afternoon, even if Mauer’s bat doesn’t have a lightning scar on it.
You could write us into this spot, but reality intrudes. Mauer’s arcing hit to center was gathered up by Marlon Byrd, who hustled hard to scoop it. Denard Span left second, all too certain of a hit, and became the final out by running as if there were already two outs. Opportunity lost.
Morneau led off the eighth with a walk against new reliever CJ Wilson. Kubel followed with a single, and Gardenhire sent Gomez in to run for the slow, stocky Kubel.
With no outs and two on and the game likely on the line, the Twins got another test of whether they want to contend. CJ Wilson struck out Michael Cuddyer to rebalance the inning in the Rangers’ favor. But they weren’t out of the woods yet.
Brendan Harris hit a grounder that shot through the infield, allowing Morneau to score the tying run. Cruz’ throw from the outfield went wide of the plate and allowed Gomez to advance to third and Harris to second.
On an infield chopper to Hank Blalock at first, Gomez took off for home. It was gutsy, but he had a good lead and beat the slightly offline throw. Now up 4-3, the Twins still have only one out and men on first and third.
Little Nicky Punto, master of the squeeze bunt, brought in Harris and was safe at first. Harris crossed home before Rodriguez could get a handle on the ball, and then Rodriguez’s throw to first was well behind the speedy Punto.
With two little infield hits—no power, only strategy—the Twins climb up 5-3. They used the talent they had and made it work. Sometimes being a contending team means admitting your shortcomings and making a virtue of them.
Joe Nathan always seems to find new ways to add excitement to the closer’s job. Here to preserve a two-run lead, he walked Hank Blaclock after starting him 0-2.
Nathan hunts around in his repertoire to find a double play ball to pitch to Cruz. He almost found it, too, but Cruz hit a lucky liner to left to put men on first and second. The ball poked through the left side of the infield, and suddenly Nathan looked terribly vulnerable.
Rodriguez took a swinging strike, then knocked the next pitch lazily straight to Nathan. This is the double play, no doubt about it. But Nathan seems to overplay it, rebalancing his feet and throwing flat and slightly wide to second. The ball bounced past the infielder and everyone was safe.
Bases loaded. Baseball never requires much math, and we’ve been answering one question all inning: where’s the tying run? At the plate, on first, on second. Far too close for comfort.
Who knows how Nathan survives these dramas. His shakes his head and exhales mightily, and I end up mimicking him from the couch. What other gesture is possible while watching someone move through a minefield?
Now Nathan settles down to collect his three necessary outs: strike out, fly out, groundout. Twins win.
Nothing I saw this weekend counts the Rangers out on their journey toward the postseason. But the main thing I saw was a sense of resolve, and a sense of fun, on the part of the Twins.
Yes, contending rhymes with pretending, making for some pretty catchy and sometimes superficial classifications. I know as well as anyone that the Twins have an extremely questionable starting rotation. And I know it’s important to start distancing yourself from your team about now, lest they break your heart. But the Twins have more than simple possibility on their side. They have Mike Redmond, playing once a week, hustling out that happy triple. That’s contending.