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.