I am cheered by the Twins. Which is, after all, the point. But we do tend to overcomplicate our sports—every failure, and even every success, generates oceans of criticism.
But tonight, I am cheered by the Twins. Though they still hover near .500, they’ve actually made a radical turnaround. They were 4-9 in the first half of August, but 10-5 in the last two weeks. It’s a gruesome way to go 14-14, with a losing spell that seemed never to end and a winning phase that could do no more than counterbalance the losses.
But that winning arc isn’t over. The Twins might be climbing somewhere.
In the last two weeks, they swept Kansas City and won series against Baltimore and Texas. They started a three-game series with Chicago last night and won by using the full complement of baseball aptitudes.
There was good pitching from Nick Blackburn, solid relief pitching, and a tidy save by Joe Nathan. A little power hitting, plus your basic base hits. And solid fielding throughout the game, much in contrast to some blunders by the White Sox.
Tonight, Jeff Manship made his first major league start, and it was a pleasant surprise. Ron Gardenhire has been patching a leaking pitching boat all season, with injuries and ineffectiveness creating constant turmoil in the rotation. Manship went five solid innings and allowed one run and four hits.
But what I’m really cheering about is the pattern of the game. It was scoreless through four, and neither team seemed to have the upper hand.
The White Sox scored first, but the Twins had a ready reply in the bottom of the same inning. Alexi Ramirez homered off Manship in the fifth, and then Michael Cuddyer duplicated the feat against Sox starter John Danks. If you can break my pitcher’s shutout, I can break yours.
The Twins added another run in the sixth, and a third in the seventh, on Cuddyer’s second homer of the evening. A 3-1 lead is a wobbly little thing, but with only six outs to go and Nathan in the bullpen, it didn’t seem too frail to get us home safe.
The test of the team is what it does when discouragements arise. In fact, I think that’s why we watch sports in the first place, simply to see a template for facing adversity. Tonight, we got our object lesson in the eighth inning.
Jose Mijares, normally a very effective bridge to Nathan, has lately had a knack for settling down very slowly when he starts an inning. As in, walking the first man he faces. It’s a jam I’ve watched him get out of many times, but tonight, to protect our second place position in the division against the Sox, Gardy pulled Mijares after the four-pitch walk to Scott Podsednik.
Matt Guerrier was brought in to face Gordon Beckham. Guerrier wasn’t going to get any time to settle down either, for Beckham sent the first pitch he saw rocketing over the leftfield wall.
All air seemed to leave the Metrodome. It may have been an oddity of the position of microphones, but I kept hearing the low hum of the ventilation system, suddenly louder, and sadder, than the fans. The game was tied, and there were no outs.
The rest of the inning had some ugly moments, though they won’t amount to anything in the box score. Guerrier got his three outs, but not before throwing two wild pitches. Joe Mauer failed to scoop up one of them, and AJ Pierzynski beat his throw to first after swinging at strike three. Briefly, the Twins looked shaken, and unraveled.
The Metrodome’s horrid ventilators were heaving the air in and out while the Twins struggled to retire the White Sox. But against the last batter, when Guerrier had gotten two strikes on Carlos Quentin, I heard cheers start up. The fans felt like rallying, and made their hopes known. And indeed, it was strike three to end the inning,
The Twins couldn’t solve the problem in their half of the eighth, but they put together a thoroughly exciting ninth inning. Jason Kubel led off with a single against reliever Matt Thornton. Gardy, looking for every advantage, installed Nick Punto to do the remaining running for Kubel.
Ozzie Guillen wasn’t about to be outmanaged by Gardenhire if he could help it. He headed to the mound to pull Thornton, and brought in Tony A. Pena, a reliever I’d never seen before.
With none out, Cuddyer is up and no one is surprised to see he doesn’t have a third homer in him. He flied out. Now Brendan Harris is up. I may be overgenerous about him, but I know I’ve seen him collect a bigger than average share of small clutch hits.
And tonight is no exception. He singles, and Punto stands at third, aching to reach home and win the game.
A sacrifice fly will do it now, but Carlos Gomez cannot put together the swing for it. He strikes out, and the weight of the tie starts to settle heavily on everyone in the stadium.
Gardy has one last out, and one last plan. He wants a pinch hitter for Alexi Casilla, and calls on Jose Morales. Morales has only recently been called back up. He’s the backup catcher to the backup catcher, but has shown quite a penchant for pinch hitting. It’s time to try him again.
Morales nailed the second pitch, hitting a hard liner to center. Punto’s home and the Twins win.
It’s cheering, in every respect. The team mobs Morales and exults. We’re beating our closest pursuer, and we’re doing it despite the obstacles that arise. The team is drawing on the young, the inexperienced, and the largely overlooked, but getting solid work from them. And somehow, there’s a belief that those 3-1/2 games between us and the Tigers. . . well, that’s not Everest, now is it?