Category Archives: the series

Looking for a Turning Point: Twins @ Yankees

Among baseball matchups, Twins-Yankees contests have moved deep into hyperbolic territory. Obviously, they’re not keen regional rivals, but over the last decade these teams play to settle one single question: Under what planetary alignment could the Twins possibly beat the Yankees?

The Yankees win when it counts. In four Division Series against the New York, Minnesota’s record is 1-3 (2003), 1-3 (2004), 0-3 (2009), and 0-3 (2010). A decade of making noise in the AL Central, only to have the Yankees (and in 2002 and 2006, the Angels and As) shut you up.

The postseason deflatings have been gruesome, but they simply carry on the rich regular season tradition of pure Yankee dominance. Before the four-game series that started this Monday, the Twins had played 73 regular season games against the Yankees since 2002. The Twins have won 20 of them, a statistically distressing 27% success rate.

And it’s anomalous. In that same span, the Twins have suffered against the Blue Jays, but only to a 30-41 record. The Yankees have clobbered the Royals nearly as well—a 68% beatdown pace—but KC lost to everyone in that decade. Something just happens when hallowed pinstripe meets Midwestern pinstripe.

Add in the bonus oddity that Yankee Stadium, old or new, is especially well suited to the hitting skills of the Twins’ predominantly lefty lineup and you are left wondering why an interlocked N and Y have such a definitively mesmerizing effect on the Twins. They fare no better at home, whether in the Metrodome where they used to enjoy a decisive home field advantage against all teams not from the Bronx, or in new Target Field.

For a decade, the Twins’ sole project has been to offer themselves up for the Yankees to devour.

So when I settled in for this series, played in New York, I began with a simple, feeble hope: just win one of the four games to shake off at least a little of the feeling of doom. The Twins 2012 season is off to a predictably lousy start—2-7, dead last in the division, with the only bright spot confined to a Justin Morneau homer that might (might!) signal that his concussion symptoms have truly started to dissipate. The Yankees are 5-4, tied atop the AL East with Baltimore and Toronto.

Even staunch Twins fans can’t expect much from the team this year. They’ve brought in Josh Willingham to try to make up for the power lost with the exodus of Delmon Young, Jason Kubel, and Michael Cuddyer. The rotation is rickety, and now Scott Baker will be lost to Tommy John rehab for the year, leaving behind Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Jason Marquis, Nick Blackburn, and Anthony Swarzak. The Twins made a madcap, high-risk pick of closer free agent Joel Zumaya, who didn’t make it past spring training before suffering the type of injury that every other general manager in baseball adequately foresaw. Sift the roster however you like—there’s little there but some hope that Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau might hit a little and Danny Valencia can finally win manager Ron Gardenhire’s love with some handy hitting.

The Yankees, on the other hand, replace All-Star with All-Star whenever an injury or a more favorable pitching matchup requires. However, for all the glory in their stat lines, it’s important to note that it’s an aging hitting lineup: catcher Russell Martin is the youngest of the offense at 29. They’re tall, they’re trim, they’re well-conditioned and cared for, but trying to wring a little more out of Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones starts to look a little like a rich man’s a creepy kind of science experiment.

The pitching staff has a bloom of youth in Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova, but they’re joined by oldsters CC Sabathia, Freddy Garcia, and Hiroki Kuroda. Michael Pineda, hope of the future, is nursing his shoulder back to health. As reluctant as they are to shed any bit of the luster that was Yankee glory in the 90s, Jorge Posada has retired and Andy Pettitte is standing by in the minors, while Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter continue to merit spots on the roster.

Jeter is off to a hot start this season, his perfect career evolving into a perfect and long one. So, for game one, Carl Pavano versus Freddy Garcia, my lowered expectations were as follows: win one game of the four, and maybe get Derek Jeter out a couple times.

Yes, well, that will not be possible. The Twins start strong, scoring 2 in the first, but if you really want to feel gloomy, you can remind yourself that the Twins started with the lead for so many of the games they lost to the Yankees that it’s almost an eerie prediction of failure. Still, a double from Mauer and a single from Morneau, plus RBIs from Willingham and Doumit make it feel like the turning point might at last be at hand.

But in the bottom of the first, Jeter needs only two pitches from Pavano to find the one he’d like to launch to his right field homer zone. It’s the standard punch in the gut, but perhaps Pavano can reinflate himself? Not quickly enough. Curtis Granderson also likes the look of the second pitch he sees and whips his bat around to park it a little higher in the same right field porch.

Two lead off homers and this is starting to look like a classic Yankee massacre. Classic, as in Why did you bother to try to play against us? The frail little tie lasts a few minutes, but Mark Teixeira drives in Alex Rodriguez to make it 3-2. The entire universe settles: Yankees ahead, Twins paralyzed.

I could dream about a turning point, but there’s a grim sameness now. The good news is that Pavano regains every speck of his composure after that insta-collapse first inning. He becomes efficient, focused, and deals a few crisp strikeouts while leaning on a double play to solve the third.

Garcia, meanwhile, also got said mojo back and began dispatching Twins at a brisk clip until the fifth, when the Twins retook the lead on a double from Alexi Casilla, a single from Jamey Carroll, and a double from Mauer. It looked like more was building: with Mauer on second, up comes Willingham, the Twins best hitter at the moment. It’s an ideal scoring opportunity, but Willingham settles for a fly out.

The Yankees were done for the night; Pavano made it through seven without the slightest flashback to his first inning woes. But the Twins notched a few more runs, the most encouraging of which was Morneau’s lofty solo homer to deep center. Final score: 7-3. Essence of a turning point.

Tuesday’s game pits Liriano against Sabathia. Liriano has already had two miserable starts, but I’m not the only observer who can’t shake memories of the brilliance of his first full season, in 2006, when he went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA and an even 1.00 WHIP. There have been surgeries, injuries, lost seasons, stumbles, and just about every disappointment you can name, but the image of 2006 persists. I watch because there’s always this wild chance Liriano will bloom again.

Wait a minute—flowers don’t do that. Baseball is so good at lodging stories about players in our heads, but I’ve got to let the real evidence chip away at my idealized Dominican lefthander. Well, the Yankees are happy to slam me back to earth.

Liriano has a shaky first but escapes after allowing a double and a walk. The Twins score in the second, with Willingham keeping his 11-game hitting streak going with a homer off a pitch Sabathia hangs. It’s a puny lead, but I’m no longer willing to write it off as another Twins folly. Last night they not only held on, they got better as the game progressed.

But Liriano is not comfortable on the mound tonight. A feeling of pure Twins futility returns, and it’s such a familiar feeling. It’s clear Liriano no longer has the velocity, location, or the requisite pride in his calling. In fact, pitching may no longer be his calling. Time and injuries have turned a 95-mph fastball into a 91-mph not-fooling-anyone pitch. One only wants Liriano lifted as the hits and runs keep clunking over on the odometer. Rick Anderson sedately visits the mound with the same implacable expression—largely constructed from a motionless salt and pepper mustache—and Liriano stays in, not least because the Twins have little else in the bullpen to offer up to the hungry Yankees.

The Twins tick off two more runs, but the Yankees go on to take four more off Liriano, and three from Minnesota’s motley relief staff. Final score: 8-3 Yankees, and the turning point seems to have turned back to the inexorable Yankees.

Yet there is a bright spot. If Yankee mystique has overwhelmed the Twins for ten years, the new players in the lineup seem a tad less sensitive to the virus. There’s that little sleight of hand in a lineup like the Twins’, where low expectations allow for surprises. Tonight Clete Thomas, Jamey Carroll, and Alexi Casilla all get hits. These pale before the Yankees’ clobberings—only A-Rod goes hitless, while little-known backup catcher Chris Stewart has two hits and three RBI. The Yankees even win on unlikely sources of hits.

Sabathia has an OK night, with seven Ks and only four hits, though he does give up three earned runs. This is an improvement on his two previous outings this season, but it’s not easy to tell if his season will settle around his career averages or show some real decline. For now, the Yankees sleep calmly with the series split 1-1.

Game 3 features a pitching matchup that no fantasy team is sporting this season: Hideki Kuroda versus Jason Marquis. Kuroda has a rocky first inning, precisely in keeping with the tenor of this series. Denard Span leads off with a hit, Carroll follows right along with a single, and Mauer hits a sweet double to score two. Josh Willingham’s bullet to left is snared by Derek Jeter, but Justin Morneau hits his second happy homer of the series, deep to right center. The inning ends with Twins up 4-0—what better present for Jason Marquis in his Twins debut?

Well, it’s the first inning. It’s a bottomless pit for pitchers in this series, so Marquis proceeds to give up 3 runs and fidget with two on and one out. It looks like a pure and absolute collapse—30 pitches worth—when Alexi Casilla starts a double play that gets the Twins out with the lead intact.

Neither pitcher has much of a grip on things tonight. The big suspense is whether Marquis can survive the fifth inning. With the game at the halfway point and the Twins up 6-4 after a second homer from Morneau in the top of the inning, there’s still no sense yet that momentum has tipped Twinsward. Thanks to a double play that, honestly, appeared not quite swift enough to snare Cano at first, Marquis notches his 15 outs and is done for the night.

The seventh begins to look like more trouble. Jeter leads off with a single against Brian Duensing, who’s given up a leadoff hit in all three innings he’s pitched this season. The bullpen is warming up and the great weight of Yankee destiny is felt again. Teixeira rips one to left and it’s men on first and second, one out. Cano is up, and he’s already turned in an RBI double and solo homer tonight. The Twins slim edge here is the lefty-lefty matchup.

Cano hits a grounder to Casilla, but it becomes a fielder’s choice instead of a double play. Teixiera’s erased, Jeter’s swaying proudly at third, and Cano stands at first. Jared Burton comes in to face Nick Swisher.

If I’m so keen on turning points, I have one now. The series is even, the Twins are ahead in the game, and the Yankees are threatening. Put them away and the 2-run lead may stay safe for a victory. Crumple, and the whole series is lost.

Burton’s first two offerings are balls so far out of deception range they wouldn’t lure a child. I remain convinced this is the critical at-bat of the game, but it’s plainly not going to be one of those heroic showdowns of might against might. Swisher fouls one off. Burton produces a nifty changeup for a swinging strike and now I lean forward in anticipation. Something is materializing here.

Swisher fouls off another. It’s 2-2, 2 on, 2 out, with a 2-run lead—as twoish as it gets. Baseball often suspends itself on twos; three is always the final note, the last beat, the one you can almost hear before it falls.

Another foul back, another delay in reaching whatever conclusion this confrontation has to offer. It feels like the ninth inning to me.

Burton hurls a splitter and earns a swinging strike. That’s it!

If this is the turning point, if one could actually see a turning point as it happens, it has unspooled itself slowly over a long inning, with two pitchers struggling slowly. It will take time to prove whether anything turned or not, but I think I feel a few atoms realigning.

Matt Capps does the honors in the ninth. With one out, Jeter munches through 10 pitches to achieve his desired, god-like result: a solo homer that cuts the lead in two and opens the door for further Yankee settling of accounts. Capps dispatches Granderson and Teixeira, though, and the Twins lead the series 2-1. Final score: 7-6.

By game 4, irrational hopes sprout up. The Twins could take home quite a pretty scrapbook here if they pulled off a decisive 3-1 series win. It will be up to Anthony Swarzak, the best hope in the Twins’ depleted rotation, who faces Phil Hughes.

Once again, the first inning is a banquet. The Twins score 4, the Yankees 3. There’s something so prompt about these Yankee responses to an opponent’s runs—it feels like they’re staying on top of their e-mail. In this case, Granderson starts off with a home run, as if cluttering the bases with singles would just take too long. He has a whippy swing, and it looks almost like the bat head is spinning away from him, that he’s barely harnessing the centrifugal force as he lunges out to the ball. His homers are so brisk they feel inevitable.

The Twins try their own version of answering back in the second, and this time it’s Mauer, with one on, hitting the ball deep to left. This is the spot where he can hit opposite field homers; in his 2009 overachiever season, even Yankee Stadium wasn’t safe. This time, the ball lands in Ibanez’s glove with plenty of warning track to spare.

Mind you, the Twins are still ahead in the second, but now it’s time for Derek Jeter to flick his wand and send in the tying run. Then Granderson hits his second home run in a 40-minute span to push the Yankees ahead.

To unravel how they can make such things come true, we need to look at what constitutes the bottom of their order. Swarzak was not able to retire Eduardo Nunez, playing second base tonight to give Cano a DH turn. New York has strength wedged against strength.

By the fourth, the Yankees are in cruise control. The Twins have yanked Swarzak and are trying on Jeff Gray in middle relief. After one out, when Granderson steps up, it simply doesn’t seem necessary for him to keep hitting. But there is a tuning fork he can hear especially perfectly today—his swing is in some special Yankee ballpark harmony. Third home run of the night.

Phil Hughes never exactly overwhelms, but he keeps the Twins at bay. Hughes looks a bit like Beetle Bailey on the mound. His has is not pulled especially lower than other players’, but with his mouth always half open and the dark shadow of the hat bill making it impossible to read his eyes, there’s a regular schlub’s mild helplessness about him. But hapless GI or not, Hughes has turned the page from his first inning’s troubles.

Hughes even glides past the gnat-like irritation of stout Ryan Doumit getting his first Twins homer, with Morneau on base, bringing the score to 7-6 in the sixth. There it stays for Rivera to make it official with his darting cutter, retiring Carroll, Mauer, and Willingham—seven pitches, three outs, good night.

Splitting the series 2-2 constitutes an improvement for the Twins, but it’s no full bore turning point. And for the Twins to whip themselves into contention in the Central this season would require miracles outside my range of hope. It’s easier to cheer for the odd little accomplishment while understanding that no big dreams can be attached to this team.

The Yankees, meanwhile, impress well past mere payroll. I complain about them, groan about them, suffer their annihilating force—but I must concede their majesty. These guys are good. They’re making the most of a less than stellar rotation; they’re sending up a lineup organized around a sequence of strengths; they’re keeping players healthy. Heck, they’re fine-tuning Granderson’s swing to the point of a 3-for-5, 3 homer night.

There are times the Yankees look like a synthetic collection of talent—fantasy baseball run wild. But when you see them play the game, they do the little and large things, and they do them with each other. Hustling to make plays, advancing runners, keeping their heads in the game. Money makes them impregnable, but talent and desire make them win.

[game 162] 51,000 Fans Don’t Say Goodbye

The Tigers started one hour earlier, hosting the White Sox. They had already run up a 3-0 lead before what could be the last first pitch at the Metrodome. The final game of the season, and it was going to count.

The Twins and Tigers began the day tied, so a loss by either team could mean the end. The Twins had to win to be sure to stay alive, but it would be their fourth in a row, a streak they’d achieved only a few times this season. The Tigers had to win to save their season and, it sometimes felt, their city. All a win would require is ending a three-game losing streak—pretty likely in the normal baseball scheme of things.

One team’s season might come to an end, but if both won or both lost, the season would trickle on to a tiebreaker. The Twins faced the same trial last year, and lost a 1-0 game in Chicago. The tense, magnificent pitching from both sides was marred only by a solo homer from Jim Thome. It sailed off into the black night and the season ended for Minnesota.

Thanks to winning the season series against the Tigers, the Twins would get to host any tiebreaker this year. So the Metrodome itself was on the brink of a reprieve.

Whenever the last out is made in 2009, the plastic-wrapped Dome will come to its baseball end, ready at last to be converted to fulltime football use. Ready, in fact, to admit that it was never suited for anything but football. The purple and gold Vikings trim would be rolled out tomorrow in any case, for the Monday night game when the Packers would pay a call on their old pal, Brett Favre in his new horned helmet.

For this afternoon, the additional upper deck right field seats are opened up and 51,000 baseball fans packed the puffy dome to scream their team to victory. But they also watched the scoreboard, and saw the Tigers beating up the White Sox.

The Twins wasted no time demonstrating they were still carrying the momentum of the last three weeks into this game. Climbing from 7 games behind around Labor Day, the Twins weren’t making an academic little comeback. They were still at it.

Against Luke Hochevar of the Royals, Denard Span drew a walk, yet another testament to his ideal leadoff hitter skills. He stole second, then Hochevar collected a groundball out from Orlando Cabrera.

Joe Mauer comes to the plate, still the picture of contentment and handy hitting prowess. One can’t peer into any hitter’s brain, but I’ve never seen the slightest sign that Mauer felt too tense to do his best at the plate. Through a small hitting slump this season, he never seemed to press, and he let go gracefully of the early season’s power surge, settling back into deft singles hitting. His average has fallen from its lofty .400 peak, but it’s settled firmly into the .365 zone, good enough on this final day the season to define him as the AL batting champ. Mauer is calm.

Hochevar is not. He walks Mauer even as the chants of “MVP” throb through the tank-like air of the Metrodome.

Two on, one out, Tigers up 3-0 in the fifth inning of their game. Jason Kubel, who bats in Justin Morneau’s spot and plays in Michael Cuddyer’s rightfield position, comes to bat without any “MVP” cheering, but the fans don’t forget that Kubel has done a lot more than fill in this season. He’s the power threat that keeps pitchers honest. And who surprises them when they concentrate too much on Mauer or Morneau.

Kubel uncorks a huge homer to right field, high in the upper deck. Quick as that, in the first inning, the Twins have duplicated the Tigers’ score and lead 3-0. Late in the inning, Delmon Young would do Detroit one better with a solo homer to make it a 4-0 lead.

The game began to feel just a little lighter, a little more effortless. Carl Pavano pitched well, with a higher than usual number of strikeouts thrown in. The Twins hitters visibly relaxed, and then added to their lead.

In the third, Cabrera rapped an infield single and Hochevar sized up Mauer again. Hochevar wouldn’t risk much against the cool batting champion-to-be, and walked him. Up comes Kubel in the same two-men-on hitting situation.

And, improbably, has the same result. This homer only clears the wall in left by one row, as the giddy, goofy fans make sloppy efforts to clutch the ball. The Twins have gained ground on the Tigers, leading 6-0 while Detroit carries a 5-0 advantage.

Young doesn’t cap off Kubel’s accomplishment this inning, but he does manage a duplicate solo homer in the fifth to take the Twins to 8-1 after a Royals run in the fourth.

Hitched to this glorious lead, the Twins and fans begin to glimpse a magnificent possibility. In the eighth inning in Detroit, the White Sox stage a revolt and bring the score to 5-3. Only two runs back. The Twins look invulnerable against the Royals now, and the Tigers might just dissolve on this last day.

Both dreams are blown to dust. The Tigers keep their lead and end the day winners behind a masterful game from Justin Verlander, a gorgeous stabbing catch from Curtis Granderson, and homers from Ryan Raburn and Magglio Ordonez.

What’s worse, the Royals are not content to gift wrap the tie for the Twins. They finally get to Pavano in the sixth, scoring three runs on some crisp hits, including one solo homer from Alex Gordon. Bobby Keppel comes in to get the last out, but it eludes him. He leaves men on the corners for Ron Mahay, who defeats the purpose of his lefty matchup against Mitch Maier by plunking him to load the bases.

Let’s review. The Tigers have won. The tying run in this game is now at the plate. The Royals best hitter, Billy Butler, is due up. There’s no more season left if this game slips through our fingers.

Jon Rauch, the giant reliever with the tattoo on the right side of his neck, brings his 6-11” presence to the mound. One mission, one batter. There are many possible outcomes here, but only one sure defensive approach: a strikeout.

Rauch burns a fastball in for a strike that Butler watches. He throws a ball that fails tantalize. Now Butler wants to get into a hitting rhythm, so he fouls off the next pitch. The advantage sweeps to Rauch with a 1-2 count. He capitalizes, and strikes out Butler swinging.

The mood in the Metrodome loosens up again. There’s even a little more scoring to do, and the Twins finish the afternoon with a 13-4 win that’s so emphatic it seems to need more than scoreboard lights to announce it.

There is still the matter of the Tigers. The Twins have preserved the tie, not broken it. In fact, they have never more than shared first place in the division all season.

But the afternoon ends with a farewell ceremony for the Metrodome, featuring players from the 28 years of teams that have suffered and rejoiced under the grimy Teflon roof. The dumb dome is not going to be missed as architecture, or as beautiful baseball history, but there have been some wondrous plays and players here.

I watch the parade of them, in fresh Twins jerseys pulled on over bellies large or trim. Kent Hrbek, Brad Radke, Ron Coomer, Juan Berenguer, Danny Gladden, Jack Morris, Bert Blyleven, Gary Gaetti, and on they come. The current team is part of the ceremony too, and the field is filled with players of all eras

No matter how rock hard the turf, or gray the ceiling, or baggy plastic the right field fence, the Dome has been a place where the sheer sonic volume of the fans has tried to inspire each player’s best efforts. It’s sometimes a crude communication, but there is some soul in all this Teflon, and it comes from the people who have populated the place, on both sides of the fences.

In Tuesday’s tiebreaker, the blue plastic plays host once more.

[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.