And now there are four outcomes left, and three of them are favorable. Hold onto that for a moment: three of them are favorable. If the Twins and Tigers both win Sunday, there’s a deciding game 163 at the Metrodome. Same if the Twins and Tigers both lose.
If the Twins win and the Tigers lose—which would require the odds-stretching outcome of three-game sweeps by both the Twins and the White Sox—the Twins take the division at the last possible minute, having never been in alone first place before.
And then there’s the fourth possibility, a Tigers win and a Twins loss. That would end it right there, break the tie and break the spell. But for now, there’s still a last possible bit of magic.
It felt like it took magic for the Twins to escape two mighty perils on Saturday. They faced Zach Greinke, who’d beaten them five days ago. Greinke isn’t just pitching to be a spoiler, he’s pitching for the Cy Young award. The only stat hindering his case right now is the win total, so getting another W is crucial. The entire Royals team wants to help him toward that trophy.
Facing him is Nick Blackburn, going on three days’ rest. It looks like a matchup tilted wildly KC’s way. But both pitchers are equally masterful for six innings, and the scoreless void felt as big as the inflated Metrodome. Then it was Greinke who cracked.
Joe Mauer got the hit that busted open those zeroes, scoring Nick Punto on a single. It was a long, careful at-bat, the mirror of last week’s showdown between Greinke and Mauer—the one that Greinke won with a K. This time, Mauer, converted a Greinke fastball into a base hit.
It looked like the inning was going to contain just that painstakingly put together run, built from Punto’s walk and Denard Span’s sacrifice to nudge him onto second, and Orlando Cabrera’s groundout that parked him on third. But the Twins had more in store.
Mauer’s hit unlocked something in the game: he put doubt in Greinke’s mind. With two outs, Jason Kubel doubled and then Greinke hit Michael Cuddyer to load the bases.
If you want to win a Cy Young, you’ll have to face more than a few of these situations, and bend them to your will. Greinke may still get the award, but it won’t be for this inning—he gave up a mighty three-run double to Delmon Young. Twins 4, Royals 0, most formidable pitching obstacle overcome. Greinke was finished after six innings.
The Royals tallied a run via a solo homer from Mike Jacobs in the next inning, but the 4-1 lead was comfortable enough for Blackburn to start the eighth. And once again the perils of baseball are made manifest. For to put it simply, baseball is not easy.
Miguel Olivo doubles to lead off the inning. It’s a walloping hit that bounces back off the rightfield wall to become a ground rule double instead of the homer it more closely resembled. Ron Gardenhire is in no-chances mode, so Blackburn is pulled after great and glorious service.
Lefthander Jose Mijares comes in to face Alex Gordon. Both players have intermittent success, and interludes of trouble. Mijares can shut down a string of batters, then flail to find the strike zone. Gordon has potential seething from every pore, but has yet to rack up the stats to match. So, who will prevail today?
It’ll be Gordon. He lofts a home run to right, scoring Olivo as well. The Twins’ lead is down to one.
Then it’s erased altogether. After Mijares allowed the next batter to reach on a single, Jon Rauch lumbered up to the mound. This inning now has the distinct tang of failure, but Rauch might be the right man to put a stop to that. He’s a giant presence up there, and he likes to throw strikes.
Which, in this instance, can be swung on. Willie Bloomquist singles to fill the corners. There are no outs, and if we don’t get a few right now, there will be no tomorrow either.
Rauch bears down. Mitch Maier hits a double play ball, but those two outs are poor consolation for the run that scores. The game is tied.
Rauch gets the third out against formidable Billy Butler. There’s a lot to feel good about—it’s only a tie, Butler’s been stopped in his tracks, and this immense inning is finally over. But it feels like a turning point, and not turning a happy direction. The second peril of the day rises up—we’ll have to do more than beat Greinke; we’ll have to beat the whole team.
In the bottom of the eighth, we see the difference between playing a game and playing for your life. The Tigers won’t start their showdown against the White Sox until tonight, but they’ll end up playing tight and tense. And losing, for a second time.
The Twins faced the toughest pitcher they had to beat to keep their improbable run alive, and they kept him from winning. And in the eighth, Michael Cuddyer came up to the plate and took an extremely pretty cut, looked high off to left and tossed his bat aside with joy.
Home run, Twins ahead to stay.
Playing loose, like there’s no tomorrow.