Monthly Archives: September 2009

[game 155] Batter v Pitcher

The Twins had to win today, as they’ll have to win every day for the next week. Most particularly, it behooved them to win if the Tigers did. But, happy news, the Tigers did not.

A Twins loss would simply hold them steady at two games behind Detroit. A Twins win—oh, la!—would push them up to one game back.

But a Twins win would also mean a loss or a no decision for Zack Greinke, estimable pitcher of the Kansas City Royals. There’s not much crowding at the top of the list of the best things about the Royals. Greinke is the pride of KC, followed at a discrete distance by young, cherubic, power hitter Billy Butler.

And Greinke is now in a season-end battle of his own, for the Cy Young award. While the Twins strive to win the division, we can be pretty confident Joe Mauer has the AL batting title sewn up. But Greinke is one of six plausible Cy Young winners.

There’s no clear-cut leader because each of the other worthies has cornered one or two of the typical hot stats. Greinke leads in ERA and is second in strikeouts. But he’s far back in wins, and with two starts to go the best he can do is 17. He needs a victory today.

It’s fair to assume that manager Trey Hillman will do what he can to assure that victory, and that the rest of the team is keen to earn it for Greinke. They wouldn’t mind troubling the Twins for plain old divisional cred, but they’re playing for their teammate even more intensely.

Add to this mix the fact that the key blemish in Greinke’s record can pretty much be defined as being employed by the Royals. The team defeats its pitchers in the classic way, by failing to score many runs and operating a leaky bullpen. If any team owes its pitcher, it’s these Royals—they’re wrecked too many of his starts already.

OK, then: everyone wants to win this baseball game, and all for fine and glorious reasons. But only one team will.

Fitting, then, that Yuniesky Betancourt should lead off the scoring for the Royals. In both prior games of the series, Betancourt made a key error that allowed the Twins to take the lead. He makes amends in the second inning by walloping a three-run homer off Francisco Liriano.

Liriano didn’t last much longer, but the baserunners he left on would be stranded by Jeff Manship. The Twins would have to grind through the bullpen for the rest of game, mindful of avoiding over-use so that all the key pitchers would be ready for the four-game series in Detroit that starts tomorrow.

A three-run deficit against Zack Greinke is bleak, but not impossibly bleak. In the third inning, the Twins began mounting their comeback, christening it with a leadoff walk earned by Matt Tolbert. Nick Punto and Denard Span followed with rather limp little singles and the bases were loaded with no one out.

If Greinke was now allowing a walk to the non-intimidating Tolbert and hits to the sturdy if not stellar Punto and Span, what would he do as the strength of the lineup faced him?

First, he’d tie up Orlando Cabrera, obtaining a weak infield grounder that served as a fielder’s choice to cut down Tolbert at the plate. Bases still loaded, but one hitter down.

Joe Mauer comes to the plate. Now, a batting title isn’t truly the measure of what fans value most in baseball today. Mauer hits safely more often than any other player in all of baseball, but many of those hits are singles. Yes, he’s had much more of a home run tear this season, but his prime skill is shooting the ball past the infield and standing safely at first. Solid, but not sexy.

Yet this is precisely the talent we need right now. A clean single scores two, and a burly double clears the bases. Joe Mauer is the perfect hitter for the occasion.

Mauer takes a strike, as he just about always does. It doesn’t matter that Greinke has been throwing about 97 and has already struck out Mauer in the first. Taking a strike is part of Mauer’s way of zeroing in on what needs to be done.

And Greinke is, perhaps, reasonably wary of this prodigious hitter. He deposits the next two pitches well out of the strike zone. Mauer doesn’t reach for them, and now we have a nice situation: Mauer ahead in the count, and unfooled by the mighty Greinke. The bases are creaking, ready to release the runners. Mauer stands in.

The ball runs inside, and then, at the maddening last minute, unwinds itself across the plate. Strike looking. And Mauer was looking in at his own shins to scoot them out of the way, but he’d been fooled. It’s 2-2.

When the bases are loaded and any kind of contact is likely to score a runner, pitchers crave strikeouts. It’s really the only tool for the job. Admittedly, Greinke just got Cabrera to cough up a weak grounder, but the only real goal now is getting strike three past Mauer. And the crowd is yelling for it.

Best statistical hitter in baseball versus Cy Young candidate pitcher. Don’t blink, because Greinke is cranking up out there. And the ball hurtles in and Mauer launches his exquisitely beautiful swing, the most practically elegant rotation of hips and shoulders in the majors, the most supple extension of arms. And he completes the swing, still as picture-perfect as ever, but that ball darted down so low so fast Mauer wasn’t ever going to find it. Strikeout.

With two outs, the problems confronting Jason Kubel are more serious. Only a hit will do now, just as only a K would have served Greinke against Mauer. Kubel not only has to come up with a base hit, he has to do it in a ballpark he is quoted as loathing. He’s backed up that complaint in this series, hitting little or nothing over the last two games.

Now the weight of the world is on Kubel, because how many more times are the Twins going to have the bases loaded against Greinke with a chance to demolish the Royals’ early lead?

Kubel takes a strike, taking a page out of Mauer’s Big Book of Hitting. Then he watches a ball high and outside. Surely, Mr Greinke, you don’t think I’ll nibble at that?

And a second ball for which Kubel refuses to lunge. Once again, the count favors the hitter, if microscopically so. Once again, Twins hopes rise while the KC crowd bellows for their pitcher. There is no way he’s getting both our best lefthanded hitters, no way we’re not scoring, no way he is wiggling out, entirely out, of a bases loaded/no out jam.

So Grienke throws strike two, a bollixing bullet that Kubel can’t tackle. He stares, and he can do all the bating glove adjusting he likes, but there was an unpleasant little overtone there, a feeling that Greinke can power any pitch to any part of the plate he likes.

Kubel taps the bat back on his shoulder and steadies himself. Greinke winds up and lets it fly and Kubel, all arms and legs now, tries to find some piece of it to foul it off and save himself for the next pitch. But he misses, pure and simple. Kubel slams his bat head down and slumps away, furious, miserable, defeated.

Greinke beat back the best the Twins could offer in the most important moment in the game. The Twins did stage a few other threats, and at no point did they look ready to quit. But they would never have quite so crisp  chance, and they would never push more than a single run across.

Watching Greinke foil Mauer and Kubel put me in two places at once. I ached for the Twins to win, of course, and these are the players I love to see coming through in the clutch. But the mastery and power Greinke showed on the mound was riveting too. He was, simply, excellent

Greinke and Justin Verlander have been splitting my personal vote for the Cy Young for the last month or so. Both are deserving, but there is an almost horrifying beauty to Greinke’s power and resolve. He gets my vote.

At least he does today. For there’s a special Cy Young obstacle course set for the Twins. They will have to face Greinke once again next weekend, and Verlander in between.

The Twins lost no ground to the Tigers—both teams lost. Tomorrow the series in Detroit begins, and I can’t spare any more mercy for the pitcher on an opposing team. No more savoring the excellence of the other side; we don’t have the margin for it.

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[games 154, 155] The Race

The Twins beat the Royals Friday and Saturday. The Tigers split with the White Sox, so the Twins were able to gain one game in the Central race. They’re two games back.

This is a race, and the Twins have been playing very good baseball to make it close. I certainly settle in to watch each game with high hopes, and it looks like the Twins love coming to the ballpark now.

For a while, it looked like the Tigers might have a little meltdown. The Twins, after all, won two of three last weekend to send them off sputtering. But Detroit regrouped and swept the Indians. The Twins kept pace, impressively, by doing the same to the White Sox.

The Tigers’ victory tonight could be both a practical and emotional boost for them. They came back from a 5-0 deficit to win 12-5. That means they not only scored a ton, but stopped the Sox cold. If you believe in momentum, they have a nice allotment right now.

Meanwhile, the Twins have done everything necessary to stay in the race. They’ve marched on without Justin Morneau, and made up for his great loss with hitting from the top to the bottom of the lineup. They’ve won the Tigers series last weekend, then swept the White Sox, with a couple come from behind stunts for good measure.

They’ve gotten good work from starters and bullpen, and played each game through every out and every inning. Michael Cuddyer is the most distinct hero—and what a beautiful time to play the best he ever has in the majors—but every player has contributed.

In the last two weeks, they’ve scored 80 runs, and lost only one game. This is hyperbolic baseball, the kind you need in a pennant race, but which is virtually impossible to sustain.

Impossible or not, the Twins need to keep it up one more week.

And then, we demanding fans would like to see another three weeks of it through the playoffs to the World Series. An insane request, but why would the fans stop craving now? Baseball very much includes such possibilities, though we recognize them as pure mutations, barely believable. Still, how miserable it would be to carry on this end-of-season campaign and actually win the division, only to become salty snacks for the Yankees?

Fans are never satisfied. Fans want sweeps, towering piles of runs, and playoff victories. The Twins have been starting to serve these things up, and our appetites increase. More!

Sweep the Royals (which will entail beating superb Cy Young candidate Zack Greinke tomorrow). Charge past the Tigers (which will require winning three games of four, on the road, against everything Detroit can throw at us). Close out the season, and the Metrodome’s life as a stadium, with enough wins against the Royals to seal the division (which means beating KC at least as much as the Tigers beat the White Sox in their finale, with another visit from Greinke along the way).

Then, when you’ve finished all these chores, try to beat the Yankees, who are not only currently orbiting a bit above everyone else playing plain old terrestrial baseball, but who beat the Twins so soundly earlier in the season that Minnesota went into a very definable swoon.

Of course, coaches always counsel that we play one game at a time. It’s wise—looking down those railroad tracks is just plain scary. Let’s hope Joe Mauer isn’t counting out all these challenges. Let’s hope all the players are just getting lots of rest, drinking plenty of high-caliber sports drinks, and calmly playing each day as if they were the most fortunate men on earth to be as lucky and skilled as they are.

Because this is a race. It won’t let up, and if we lose the explanations will be too easy. To win, the Twins have to play better than they have at any other point this season. They have to defy their own history.

They’ve been doing so recently, so you do have to pause and ask, which is the real team? The group that danced around .500, hopping like hot bacon grease to stay as close to the middle as possible, or the team that’s been playing loose and happy and just plain great for the last two weeks?

Eight games left. As a fan, I mix expectation and fear each day now. The thrill of pulling off this feat entices me to watch and to cheer and to hope. The sheer blunt likelihood of the two or three defeats in the next week that could end it all daunts me. Why do I risk so much love on my team? Why do I rush to witness each game, even while knowing that it will take so little to end the season in defeat?

Well, it’s simple. There’s risk, and there’s exhilaration, and sometimes—not always—there’s elation.

I will hope, eight more times.

[game 152] Nick Punto

When you watch the Twins, you want to see Joe Mauer or Justin Morneau—the big guns. Or maybe you want to see the hot hand of the month, Michael Cuddyer, or the other big lefty, Jason Kubel. But no one comes to see Nick Punto.

He’s a bottom-of-the-order hitter who plays good defense. (And there are people who are quick to claim he’s lost a step, but I happen to believe he’s still a true defensive asset.) He hustles hard, and happens to have earned the respect of manager Ron Gardenhire. If he hadn’t, he’d have been languishing not on the Twins bench, but a bench deep in the minors.

Punto looked like very much the odd man out when the Twins acquired Orlando Cabrera at shortstop just before the trading deadline. Alexei Casilla had just completed a successful rehab stint in the minors and came back hitting decently, and able to keep his mind on the plays in the field when on defense. Punto had filled various voids at short and second, and those positions looked to have gained much better hitters.

Never mind that Cabrera probably doesn’t have quite the defensive range of Punto at short. Or that Casilla still suffers the odd lapse in the field at second. Both pulled their hitting weight in the lineup.

Punto has spent a lot of his major league career barely hanging on to his place on the team. And this season he had his biggest challenge. From April to August, Punto often could only get on base with a walk. He tended to pop balls up, or chip weak grounders into the waiting hands of opposing second basemen. His batting average dwindled, and it grew harder and harder to justify his spot on the team.

Yet Gardy often played him. There are plenty of bloggers and sports chatters who called for his ouster, who thought Gardy was blind or foolish. I hung on, solidly pro-Punto, but I had a lot of apologizing to do.

As the season wore on, Punto kept working on his hitting.  He worked when nothing he did seemed to be paying off. He focused on coaxing out walks and looking for ways to make better contact. And he tried to chase his batting averages of yore; not that they were such gems, but that he would have to boost himself to reprise them.

When you watch the Twins, you want to see the heroes, but Punto is the definition of the only type of hero the rest of us can be. He didn’t quit when things looked darkest. He didn’t doubt himself when his skills—never dazzling—seemed to desert him. And he looked for every scrap of practice and coaching to overcome his problems.

In recent weeks, when the Twins have needed every player on the team, Punto has been fouling off pitches that he used to deposit dutifully into the gloves of infielders. He has been poking hits to center, or hitting to the opposite field. He has been working counts against pitchers, and looking for every edge. And he has been delivering.

Tonight, in the midst of a 8-6 win for a sweep of the White Sox, Punto got the critical hit in the seventh inning. It came at a key point. The Twins had let a 5-0 lead wither away to 5-4, and the Sox were ready to make a stand after scoring in three consecutive innings, most recently in the form of a two-run homer from Jermaine Dye.

In the seventh, the Twins loaded the bases on two walks and a Delmon Young double. But there were two out when Punto came to the plate.

Maybe nothing would come of the inning. Maybe the Twins would have to cling to that 1-run lead, or count on a bigger hitter to do some damage later. After all, Punto is not the go-to guy for clearing the bases.

But he stood in there, fouling off pitches, looking for the way to do some damage. With two outs, the bases loaded feels like a grim responsibility for a hitter.

Punto stayed at it. He watched a ball outside, and looked at a strike. He fouled a pitch over the dugout in left, and another to the home plate screen.

Carlos Torres, the pitcher who had relieved Mark Buehrle in the fourth, labored on. There was considerable momentum behind the Sox now, despite those crowded bases. Get this last out and the White Sox could return to hitting their way back into the game.

On the sixth pitch of the at-bat, Punto fouled off another. He had the feel of Torres. Until a few weeks ago, he wasn’t able to make even this kind of contact, and struck out swinging all too often. Seventh pitch: he has a good enough eye to spot a ball and leave it alone. It’s a full count.

And then he took a clean, straight swing and shot the ball to center. A single, but a beefy one that scored two. Punto pushed the lead back up to 7-4. And he single-handedly returned all the momentum to the Twins.

He went on to steal second and then watch another run score on a fielding error. For the night, so far, he was two for three with three RBI and a run scored.

If you watch the Twins, you want to see the big heroes, but look at Punto too. He has to nibble his way on base, but working hard to get there should count, arguably, a little more than gliding on with the great gifts of hitters like Mauer and Morneau.

And he’s so seriously mortal he might as well be your cousin. He had the key hit tonight that sealed the lead, but he also struck out in the ninth with two men on. It was a moment equally tense, when the Twins had to try to respond to yet another challenge by the White Sox who’d nudged the score to 8-6.

He will fail, and fail often. He won’t appear in every set of baseball cards. He’ll have to take extra batting practice every day just to stay where he is now. He won’t withstand a lineup challenge from a hot, young second baseman with a bit better command of the bat.

So little Nick Punto lives on the edge of extinction. He offers everything he has, but those skills just don’t rank that high. For hard work and absolute commitment, he’s admirable to a fault. But we don’t admire hard work quite as much as we do the superpowers of the superstars.

I’m glad Gardy showed such dogged confidence in him. It took him almost all season to nudge himself up to a .229 average. Big market teams wouldn’t have the patience, or need it. And even the Twins could easily have given up.

In sports, you need the skills, and you need the chances. Both are hard to find, but the switch-hitting Punto has made the most of his. The faith of a coach and hard work—the best message you can get out of baseball.

The Twins have 10 games left and a formidable foe in the Tigers. For Minnesota to climb higher than the 2-1/2 games back where they now dwell, they’ll need everyone, Nick Punto included. And they’ll need the attitude he embodies to enjoy it all, too.

[game 150] Breaks

Baseball is a little sloppy, really—it covers a lot of space, takes a lot of time, and requires physical talents that don’t fit strict molds. You can’t engineer the game from tidy specifications, or come close to predicting the outcome simply by knowing the stats of all the players. It’s messy.

So messy that you can make the argument that everything in baseball is the result of a break, one way or another. There are subtle little breaks and then the garish ones, the outlandish eruptions of fate. The bounce of the ball chopped in the infield; the position of the outfielders; the trajectory of each and every ball leaving the bat.

You can chalk a lot of it up to breaks, but before you classify such things as lowly, even illegitimate steps towards victory, it’s worth noting that no championship team makes it through a six-month season without collecting some timely breaks.

The Twins will need their nice package of skills in the next two weeks, but breaks count too. Monday night, against the White Sox, we picked up more than our share.

Breaks can be deceptively simple. With one out, Orlando Cabrera sent a ball sailing into right and Jemaine Dye ran hard to get to it. The ball was just fair, and Dye committed himself to a dive to retrieve it. He slid short of it and the ball boinked back up; before Dye could get the ball in, Cabrera had churned up the basepaths to third. A triple with one out makes a nice start to a must-win game.

But Joe Mauer hit an ineffectual grounder to short, and it was two down. Perhaps the White Sox will contain the problem; perhaps the little break of that fair ball will mean nothing.

With Kubel at the plate, rookie starter Daniel Hudson has the loss of composure he avoided against Mauer. It’s classified as a passed ball, but no matter where the blame is placed, the ball squirts loose long enough for Cabrera to hustle into home.

Cabrera got himself around the bases all by himself, and he needed to, for Hudson struck out Kubel to end the inning.

The little break, the ball landing just fair and just out of Dye’s reach, is simply regulation baseball. No one bent the rules, missed the call, or cheated the holy niceties of the game. The play just leaned a little Twinsward.

That right field line would demarcate fortune for the rest of the night. Twice, a White Sox hitter sent a pitch into the same area, and both times the ball drooped foul. It was starting to look like a little law of physics at Cellular Field: breaks for the Twins and against the Sox.

In the second inning, the breaks were embodied a bit more specifically in the person of young pitcher Hudson. He bracketed a walk with two outs and was facing the bottom of the order. But getting that third out wouldn’t be as painless as he hoped.

Matt Tolbert focused himself and knocked out a single. Nick Punto, who has been working so diligently on his hitting lately, coaxed a walk from Hudson by pure plate discipline. Bases loaded.

Denard Span, still making a case for the most elegantly productive leadoff man in the league, approached his at-bat with his usual calm. He turned Hudson’s little mistakes into a walk, the kind that drives in a run.

Mistakes aren’t breaks unless you choose to see them that way when on the receiving end of them. The Twins were up 2-0, and the White Sox did more than they should to make those runs possible.

I wish Daniel Hudson a long, happy career in the majors, but I can’t conceal the fact that his woes today were of such value to the Twins that I wouldn’t change a thing. Get well soon, Mr Hudson, but for now I’ll make the most of your misfortunes.

Which extended to the fourth inning. The White Sox still hadn’t dented Nick Blackburn’s night, but it would be nice to add to the 2-0 lead. Cabrera led off with an infield chopper that Hudson threw wildly over first baseman Mark Kotsay’s head. Cabrera would go on to score on a Michael Cuddyer single.

The Twins blanked the Sox 7-0, courtesy of seven good innings from Blackburn and solid relief from Matt Guerrier and Bobby Keppel.

The entire Twins lineup contributed, but I’ll give special credit to Nick Punto, who went two for two, collected two walks, and scored two runs. He continues to nudge his batting average gently upward. Punto will never be a dazzler, but some solid, daily contributions from players like him are what the Twins will need if they’re to play into October.

Having lost Justin Morneau and Joe Crede, we can ill afford another injury, but one occurred last night. Denard Span was hit hard in the batting helmet and left the game. He may not be out too long, but if there was a break that went against the Twins, a break that could be enormous, it would be that unruly pitch.

For now, though, I’m concentrating on the outcome and hoping Span will be back tomorrow. And before we think all those lucky breaks are merely luck, we might want to consider a corollary of Louis Pasteur’s observation about scientific discovery: “Chance favors the prepared observer.”

Chance favored the Twins because, among other things, Punto and Carlos Gomez executed a double steal and Cabrera was able to score Punto on a sac fly. And because Blackburn gave up one or more hits in every inning but allowed none of them to hatch into runs. And even because Hudson put everything he had into battling Mauer and Kubel and had nothing left to stave off the rest of the order.

The breaks spoke loudly—7 to nothing—and showed that a team needs to be in a position to collect them. That’s right where the Twins were last night, and where they just might stay all the way to the top of the division.

[game 149] Invisible

We may never know. The mood going into today’s game against the Tigers was so jubilant that all the Twins had to do was show up to thrill the fans. To thrill me, for that matter. Because dreaming of a three-game sweep felt giddy, just a bit past the reaches of reality. If you hoped out loud, you’d be embarrassed.

Now, the Twins lost today, as everyone from any vantage point in baseball would have predicted. To win would have required winning seven games in a row, while the Twins had rarely strung together more than a pair. Their current win streak was by far their season best.

To win would have required the Tigers to persist in a losing streak likewise uncharacteristic. And it would require the Tigers to make a psychological turn of significance—they’d be just about handing the division to the Twins at the precise moment they should be sewing it up.

So, it didn’t happen that the Twins pressed their winning streak to astonishing proportions and ended the weekend a mere game behind Detroit. They’re in the much less exalted, but predictable, position of three games back.

In a cautious, mature, adult world, that was the best we could hope for when entering a three-game series four games behind. We gained one hallowed game.

But even if it was too much to hope, I look back now and wonder if we should be so satisfied. We took the series 2-1, including a comeback win against a very strong Justin Verlander on Saturday. To win the series ought to be good enough, right?

The Twins have taught us to see baseball this way, by playing the whole season feeling the strong magnetic pull of .500. Right now, three games over the midline, it feels like we’re orbiting the earth. I have news: the teams that tend to go to the World Series play around .600 baseball. They win close to 100 games. The Twins aren’t likely to crack 90.

So I’m accustomed to small victories, as a Twins fan. And I am glowing with joy that we won on Friday and Saturday. But it isn’t being greedy to wish we’d pulled off that dazzling sweep. It was probably necessary.

We may never know. Baseball is designed to make it hard to know where the turning points are, when the crucial at-bats will occur, who make up the critical trades. Baseball makes it hard to know how to win a season-long campaign. In contrast, it’s generally weirdly simple to dissect a World Series or a cluster of playoff games. Cole Hamels was hot! Evan Longioria came through! Or to define winners through the losing lens: Mariano Rivera gave up that homer to David Ortiz.

No one will look back at this Sunday’s game against the Tigers and conclude that this is where we lost it. When, say, Joe Mauer led off the eighth with a single and, behind by four runs, Jason Kubel followed by grounding into a double play. Or when Scott Baker started the fifth by walking catcher Gerald Laird, and went on to allow three runs. When the Twins lost, 6-2, and gave the Tigers a good measure of their pride back.

Why do coaches yell so much? Because the one little mistake, the innocent loss of concentration, can mark a turning point. The trouble is, in baseball perhaps more than any other sport, turning points are hard to find.

The Twins might have come into this game sniffing sweep, but nobody mistook this game for a goal line stand. This couldn’t be the turning point—it was the day to celebrate the good work done on Friday and Saturday, and to see if maybe something else was left at the bottom of the Christmas stocking. Empty? No problem.

But it might have been the turning point, because the Tigers may allow no more chances quite as good. We may never know. Turning points are invisible.

[games 147, 148] Don’t Forget the Dome

Michael Cuddyer was the human hero, but the Metrodome itself played role as the Twins started off a weekend series against the Tigers.

The stakes are plain, and the stakes are high: Detroit starts with a 4-game lead in the Central. The Twins have this homestand to gain some ground, and will later play four games in Detroit. Only 16 total games remain in the season.

If the Twins don’t start working on that deficit this weekend, they may never reduce it. And if the Tigers can’t protect it, well, they just might not deserve the division.

On Friday night, the Twins greeted the visitors with further signs that the Metrodome would never be hospitable to the Tigers. Brian Duensing pitched with grit for six-plus innings, limiting Detroit to four measly hits. He was never overpowering, but neither did the Tigers succeed in overpowering him. In a game that both teams wanted to use as a launching pad for a key weekend, Duensing did the talking.

Not that the Tigers starter, Rick Porcello, rolled over and played dead. He held the Twins to eight hits, but one of them came from Michael Cuddyer in the form of a two-run homer in the fourth.

The game was a tense, scoreless affair until Cuddyer lifted the ball high to left. When he tossed the bat aside to begin a hearty trot round the bases, the Dome was filled with cheers. As always, they echoed in that dank, Dome way, but tonight it felt like Cuddy was here to fulfill the sweetest possible destiny for us.

He’d not only been picking up the hitting slack but filling in at first after Justin Morneau’s season-ending back problem. But Cuddy doesn’t seem to have the weight of the world on his as he does this. Instead, there’s an even greater cheer about him. He let his homer sail off and bustled over the bases, in a hurry to get back to the dugout for another brutal round of high-fiving.

In the 3-0 win Friday, home field advantage took the form of loud and happy fans, and perhaps the Tigers’ ability to fear the worst in this cavernous, plastic dome-space. But on Saturday, the Dome would almost literally join the lineup.

Saturday afternoon, the Tigers had Justin Verlander on the mound, facing Carl Pavano. Verlander was every inch the ace, and the Tigers were ready to wipe last night’s 0-fer from memory. They scored in the first inning on a brisk little single from Miguel Cabrera. Take notice, Twins.

Indeed, the Twins heeded the threat and replied in the bottom of the first with a home run from Joe Mauer. Verlander was good, but not impregnable.

Pavano, however, was convincingly human. The Tigers moved men onto the bases every inning, and were content to play small ball. In the third, they went ahead 2-1 on a sharp RBI single from Aubrey Huff.

And 2-1 it stayed until the eighth. Verlander had filed that Mauer homer under fluke and gone on to pitch brilliantly. He started the eighth by striking out Nick Punto, then allowed a single to Denard Span.

The double play was on everyone’s mind, and it’s fair to say that the crowd had been lulled quiet by now. It looked like the Tigers were going to even the series. It looked like the typical win one-lose one Twins pace. Never enough to forge a winning streak, always enough to tag along.

Orlando Cabrera took control of his at-bat. He took some balls, and demanded Verlander give him something. He stood through a pickoff attempt, as if the Twins would let Gerald Laird further burnish his credentials—he’d already thrown out Span in a previous inning as well Carlos Gomez. And then Cabrera fouled off some pitches, still trying to steer the plate appearance toward some kind of success.

Finally, it was apparent Verlander had him. Cabrera skied the ball to left center, where defensive replacement Don Kelly was waiting. And waiting. Because Kelly never saw the ball trace its arc along the graying, mystifying roof. He just saw it bounce, three feet to his left.

Cabrera reached second on a pure Dome double. It was as if the ballpark wanted one last chance to be part of the game. This was a place, remember, once called the Homerdome, where reporters brought in sound equipment to compare the cheering volume to airplane takeoffs. It was a force unto itself, and this afternoon, it spoke again.

With Span on third and Cabrera on second, Tigers manager Jim Leyland called on Verlander to walk Mauer. Bases full, odds probably correctly played, but the Twins like to keep that left-handed heat on. Jason Kubel hit a simple single that scored two.

Verlander left for relief pitcher Brandon Lyon, who had the duty of facing ongoing sparkplug Cuddyer. Indeed, Cuddy stayed sparkling and homered to deep center. Three more runs, and the Twins turned a 2-1 Tigers lead into a 6-2 bulwark that wouldn’t even require Joe Nathan for protecting.

To win the first two games of the three-game series, and to win them using every man on the team and not a little of the stadium itself gave an entirely new set of hopes to the division challengers. Anything is possible now.

[game 144] Joy

You can count the rest of the season. You can count it in the seven games remaining against the Tigers, or against teams that ought to be (here’s hoping) pushovers. You can count the games remaining in the Metrodome itself, and the number is so small that this afternoon the TV crew was given a chance to have a last little pickup game on soon-to-be rolled up carpet.

But most of all, you can count the season in opportunities. We’re in that limbo now when it’s mathematically possible to win the division, but the likelihood dims each day. Yes, there are enough games left to do it in, but where will the spark come from to light up those chances?

Having failed to use the Oakland A’s as a punching bag, the Twins opened a series against the Indians at the Dome tonight. Would they oblige as patsies and let us take a few steps toward the Tigers?

They started lefty Jeremy Sowers, the pitcher who’d caused the Twins so much trouble in his last outing against them. And tonight he went seven shimmering innings, confining the Twins to a handful of little hits.

Sowers doesn’t mow batters down with strikeouts and doesn’t throw much above 90 mph, but he garners groundouts with the best of them. He tied Denard Span up in knots, and seemed to trick every other hitter into chopping the ball up the middle for an easy out.

Everyone but Joe Mauer, that is. Mauer continued his march toward the batting title by going 3 for 3 tonight, all singles. But no following batter was able to nudge him as far as third, and the Twins were blanked for seven innings.

Carl Pavano made few mistakes on the mound for the Twins, but two bad pitches were enough. He walked rookie catcher Lou Marson and then served up a home run ball to Trevor Crowe. Crowe, batting ninth, will remember the moment—it was his first big league dinger.

One inning later, Pavano allowed a solo homer to Shin-Soo Choo, and the Indians were up 3-0 with an apparently impregnable Sowers on the mound.

And in fact, the secret of winning this game was getting past Sowers to the bullpen. The normally hard as nails Tony Sipp faced Orlando Cabrera, who hit a bat-splintering chopper to short. Asdrubal Cabrera mishandled the ball, and on that error the eighth inning began.

Facing Mauer, who had placed his singles neatly to left, center, and right, Sipp may have been concerned that the necklace was missing the home run jewel. He walked Mauer, and the Indians trotted out righty Chris Perez to face Michael Cuddyer.

Here the game, and the season, balance for a moment. If Cabrera hadn’t made that error, and if Sipp hadn’t flinched against Mauer, the three-run lead might well have stood up. There weren’t a lot of fans on a Monday in the Metrodome to spur the team, but this was the time when the players themselves would have to pluck desire from the ashes. At this balancing point, it could have gone either way.

Cuddyer did the magical thing. There isn’t anything more magical than parking the ball in the seats to tie a game that had looked hopeless for two hours. With a brisk swing, Cuddy lifted us all as high as the ball he crushed to center.

A tie still requires a lot of tending to convert into a win. Perez started cleaning up his mess by getting an out, then faced Delmon Young.

It was Young’s birthday, and he already had the basis of a celebration by scratching out one of the six hits Sowers permitted. Perez tried to shake off the massive homer he’d allowed, but couldn’t. Young nicked his second single.

Matt Tolbert followed with a blooper hit that floated out of range in shallow left, and Young had the presence of mind to motor all the way to third base.

Jason Kubel came up, pinch hitting for Carlos Gomez. Good choice, Mr Gardenhire. Kubel was out of the starting lineup with a sore neck, but he limbered up enough to get the count to 2-2. Perez, showing real strain, unleashed a wild pitch that allowed Young to scoot home with the go-ahead run.

Oh, the ignominy. But it got worse for poor Perez. A few pitches later, Kubel found the fastball he was looking for and punched it into the plastic seats in right. 6-3 Twins, a comeback built from swings of pure joy.

There are some ways of showing that joy. Cuddy, for example, has been raising the stakes on his post-homer high fives all season. He’s taken to smacking the welcoming committee in the dugout so hard that his teammates must wince in pain. Tonight was no exception—Gardy yelped “Ow!”

Kubel isn’t as punishing in his happiness. He tends to beam like a cherub, and I can’t quite see what’s keeping his teammates from rubbing his buzz cut head after he tosses his batting helmet on the rack. There was a lot of exuberance in that eighth inning.

Joe Nathan is still dead set on showing a high degree of difficulty of his saves. These isn’t skating, Joe! You don’t have to add that triple axle! In any case, after two smooth outs he permitted Indians to occupy first and second before coaxing a grounder to end the game.

Meanwhile, the Tigers were behind the Blue Jays, but overcame a three-run deficit in the ninth inning to go on and win the game. The Twins managed to stay 5-1/2 games back—not gaining ground, but not losing any either. That Tigers win looked every bit as magical as the treat we had from Cuddy and Kubel. How can we catch those Tags?

On the heels of this happy win came the news that Justin Morneau will be out for the rest of the season. His dwindling batting average is now explained: he has a stress fracture in his back that will require rest. It’ll heal, but it will do so on its on, in its own sweet time.

A postseason push with Morneau feels nearly impossible. In fact, the recent drop in the standings ties in all too neatly with Morneau’s hitting woes. With him and Crede lost, it’s tough to strike fear in any playoff team’s heart.

Morneau’s season is now frozen with 30 homers and 100 RBI. I remember when those nice numbers rolled over his odometer last Wednesday. I had thought he might have fixed something and set himself back on the hitting path. But this is where he will leave off, and pick up next year.

His average had been plunging, and to have it come to rest at .274 seems unfair. He had something like 7 hits in his last 70 at-bats, and that’ll ruin any average. But his season was far better than these last numbers betray. He kept the team going for the entire month of April when Mauer was out, and then, when the two of them went marching shoulder to shoulder, it looked like the Twins could be champs of the central.

Technically, I am at pains to observe, this is still so. Tonight’s win shows a bit of the heat and light we must see. But the big concern right now is which force is stronger, the loss of Morneau or the beauty of this come from behind rally?

It was a wonderful night, outcome included. Span made an elegant sliding catch and a beautiful bullet of a throw to third. Nick Punto hustled himself a hit by diving across first base, and hustled himself a stolen base in the same dusty manner. Young collected two hits on his 24th birthday.

Cuddyer had a milestone too, for the homer tonight was the 100th of his career. If you value your hands, don’t want to high five him, but you do want to celebrate.