Category Archives: winning and losing

game 2 Does It Matter How You Win?

Winning, we are pounded to understand, is everything. Coaches, fans, and players are in fervent agreement here—nothing matters except winning, and winning it all: the World Series is all that counts. Everything short of that is practice or failure.

The hyperbolic extension of this motivational speech is that there’s nothing to sports but the score and, for that matter, no reason to watch a game until October. But most of us want to follow the path to the outcome, not just tick off a win or a loss.

On the second day of play, I am nothing but a sponge ready to soak up some baseball. In many ways, winning is not on my mind at all. I’m curious to see Detroit’s new lineup, with Prince Fielder at first and Miguel Cabrera shifted to third. I’m eager to see if Justin Verlander can prove that the offseason has not eroded his velocity, competitiveness, and serene composure on the mound. And I want to watch the Red Sox, with Bobby Valentine newly at the helm, try to wipe the slate clean after last September’s collapse.

But before too long, it’s clear that I’ve made up my mind about this game. Verlander should win it, as the first step on another season’s march to results like last year’s 21-4 record. I polish up this hope after three solid innings by both pitchers, with Verlander and Jon Lester both mowing down opposing hitters. If I’m here to see some pitching prowess, let’s wish for Verlander to reveal that staggering edge he has.

It’s a day game, the first true Opening Day contest, and the temperature’s in the mid-40s in Detroit, under cloudy skies. Why do I love Verlander? And why does his unpretentious ease with throwing baseballs impress me so? Today it tells in his nutty choice to go with short sleeves, white polyester fluttering lightly over bare arms. Lester, sensibly, is wearing a red long-sleeved shirt beneath his Boston grays. Is Verlander from our planet?

Both pitchers continue gathering quick outs. Detroit musters leadoff hits in the first, second, and third, only to have Lester passionlessly erase them with double play balls. Lester is a quiet pitcher, prone to curling his wrist to bend his gloved hand up flat along his shoulder, like a violin, while he waits for the sign. His eyes are starkly shaded by the cap he’s pressed down into a simple round dome, in the peakless style now in favor. He doesn’t seem to be hearing music up there, and that black wing of leather perched on his shoulder is less an instrument than an appendage. He hurries, betraying no emotion.

By the fifth inning, Lester gets into a genuine jam after giving up a leadoff hit and then walking the next batter. Now Alex Avila is up, the Detroit catcher who earned, and deserved, the starting All-Star spot last year. I watched him many times, and learned to respect his hitting abilities that well outdid Minnesota’s Joe Mauer, the player I confess to loving beyond all reason.

Well, in this at-bat Avila does not impress. He lunges, without a lick of timing or balance, to stab his bat into bunting position but punches nothing but air. He is flailing, as only a player not quite burnished from spring training can. Lester strikes him out. Was 2011, Avila’s second full year, his apogee?

Lester converts the rest of Detroit’s threat into fly outs, and the game stays scoreless. Verlander has had fewer brushes with danger, but he was called upon to strike out David Ortiz with a man on second, which he did by dialing up the velocity on his fastball. Clearly, both pitchers would take us into that most dangerous time in baseball, the seventh inning.

In the American League, if a starting pitcher is on his game, the seventh inning will surely decide how firmly he’s on it. It will be the third trip through the order, and the pitch count will be nudging ninety. All flaws will now be revealed.

Verlander handles his half with dispatch. His fifth strikeout of the day is on a curveball that freezes Kevin Youkilis down to his ankles. Ryan Sweeney is retired looking at another of these plummeting curves. Twelve pitches, two strikeouts and a fly out, case closed.

Lester starts off with two swift outs. Funny thing about two swift outs—it seems to suggest a kind of power, a strict momentum that cannot be budged, but there is no such thing as one out causing the next.

Indeed. Jhonny Peralta doubles to left on the first pitch. It could be one of those classic cleavings-open to which seventh innings are subject. Or it could be an idle moment in the game. But now Avila is up for another try, lefty against lefty. He looks at a strike, perhaps unwilling to flounder as he did in the last at-bat. Accepts a ball, then lunges grotesquely at an outside pitch to bring the count to 1-2. Now he lays back while Lester tries to bait him again. Two balls bring the count full. Is Avila ready to start his 2012 season now, or is he still hunting for that maddeningly elusive timing that spring training did not restore?

Ah. The pitch is up on the outside edge of the plate and Avila shoots the thing deep into the leftfield corner. Cody Ross gallops to overrun the ball, which thuds to a stop by the 345’ mark as the first run of the game scores.

This hit was on Lester’s 103rd pitch, another irritating piece of evidence in support of pitch count limits. But this game seems to showcase the Seventh Inning Turning Point still more. Does the arc of the game wear pitchers down, the sheer concentration on at-bat after at-bat? Is it trips through the order, which bends in favor of the hitter’s adjustments? Does the pitcher-catcher game plan begin to unravel under game conditions? Or is it, of course, pure exertion, as the pitch limits partisans say?

I have only the limited insights of a fan, but I don’t believe that it’s a physical wall these well-conditioned pitchers hit. I think it has more to do with the subtle, constant, mental agility that it takes to play baseball—refining a swing, rethinking a pitch sequence, anticipating a location. The game lasts nine innings not to repeat itself but to grow into pattern upon pattern.

Lester bars the door against further damage. It’s a 1-0 game, and no margin is smaller. Verlander strides out for the eighth and crosses the 100 pitch mark while easily retiring the side in order. The Red Sox, however, have finished with Lester and send up Vicente Padilla, whose first pitch becomes a triple off Austin Jackson’s bat. Valentine gets to move his bullpen chess pieces during a grinding, pesky inning which includes Prince Fielder using his uppercut in nearly golf mode to produce the sac fly necessary to score Jackson. 2-0 Tigers.

Cue Jose Valverde to whip through the bullpen gate, make a knees-to-chest energy hop, and take the mound. Everything is as it should be. Verlander has picked up right where he left off and so should Valverde, who completed 49 consecutive save chances last year.

He faces Dustin Pedroia, a player so scrappy he’s exhausting. Pedroia is in a mood to tussle, and he drives up the count and then knocks a hit into the right field gap for a double. Pure Pedroia, and you have to admire a man who revels in the fact that there’s no clock in baseball.

Well, the inning unravels and pretty soon Valverde is looking at a mess he can’t clean up. I saw him take things to the brink last season yet always pull back in time. Today, he allows Ortiz to hit a sac fly to score Pedroia and just as we’re all congratulating ourselves on that go-ahead run Fielder punched in last inning, Valverde serves up a triple to Sweeney that ties the game.

You can’t do worse by a starter than let him pile up eight innings and seven Ks, while allowing two hits, one walk and no runs, and then take away his win. But it’s gone now.

The Tigers now try to make amends for this tragedy, and after starting off the bottom of the ninth with an out, Peralta raps out a single. Avila is up again, which seems to be the signal that we’re at another key juncture in this game. He spends a good bit of the at-bat fouling pitches off—I really feel I can hear the gears grinding as he tries to find his form so he can emerge from this defensive posture. Now he finds that last little bit of inspiration and singles to left. The Tigers are back to having an opportunity.

I’ll skip over the pitching changes and intermediate batters. Our hero is revealed: it’s Austin Jackson, who goes 3 for 5 by ripping a sharp liner past the diving third baseman to score the run.

If winning is everything, all is well in Detroit. The danger’s past, and we really only had to survive suspense for a half inning. I got the outcome I wanted, but I’m not so sure winning feels like everything right now.

The win in the score book actually goes to Valverde, along with an awfully big meatball of an ERA—he’ll be trying to digest that 18.00 for quite some weeks. Verlander sees his team in the win column and gets to carry around a 0.375 WHIP and 0.00 ERA for a while. What he doesn’t get is the win.

But we do. If winning is everything, it’s a dull and brutal and black and white world. I enjoyed the journey much more than the result today.

Charm Bracelet

In the American game show tradition, I’m sure there’s some type of consolation prize for baseball teams who make it to the postseason but don’t win anything. The Twins, for example, might get little charm bracelets. And game 2 of the ALDS could be commemorated by charms for the nice little positive moments that occurred. The nice little moments that didn’t in any way add up to winning what may be the last baseball game played in Target Field this season.

There could be a First Run Scored charm, in memory of Danny Valencia’s sac fly that sent Delmon Young across the plate in the second inning. That should be a shiny little spinning disk, the kind of thing that distracts you for a while until you happen to notice it’s meaningless. For the Twins in this decade, you can put ten of them on the charm bracelet and they’ll dangle and make lots of jangly noise while amounting to nothing.

I guess there should be a Futility charm; maybe it’s an anvil that could drop off the bracelet and maybe bruise your toe. Whatever it looks like, you’ll need to hang your head when looking at it.

But back to the bright side! We need an Unlikely Solo Home Run charm, to denote Orlando Hudson’s bright little blast to left field. It tied the game at two-all in the sixth inning, so the charm should be an insipid smiley face.

And, hey, we need a First Pitch Strike charm, in honor of Carl Pavano’s noble effort and consistent ability to execute the Twins’ pitching approach. Of course, when you throw a lot of strikes, a team like the Yankees might start hitting them. In the fourth, New York tried just that. Curtis Granderson doubled to lead off, and Mark Teixeira smacked a first pitch strike for a single that sent Granderson to third. Next, mighty Alex Rodriguez coiled himself up in his sulky stance and blasted a first pitch sacrifice fly to tie the game. The scoring didn’t end there, but the first pitch pounding did.

Another charm we should have: Holy Joe Mauer, Savior of St. Paul. In tonight’s game, Mauer struck out one less time than he did yesterday, grounded out twice, and got a hopeful-looking leadoff single in the ninth. In the ninth, when we needed three runs to tie and have a chance to head into Yankee Stadium with some of that polite, Minnesota-nice swagger Mauer exudes. Delmon Young would erase Mauer’s lonely hit by grounding into a double play. Joe, you are and remain my hero in every way I can have a baseball hero, but you have been playing like a passionless duffer in this series.

The charm bracelet should have also have a Bad Call charm, in the form of a little umpire’s eyeball. One can actually make a case that the entire game turned on a rather beautiful pitch the umpire neglected to consider a strike. After walking Jorge Posada to start the seventh inning, Pavano seemed to settle back down and laid a lovely trap for Lance Berkman. On a 1-2 count, Pavano carved a pitch just over the inside edge of the plate. It was the best kind of situational pitching, and it should have left a man on first with one out. Instead, the count moved to 2-2 and Berkman launched a deep double to center and scored Posada on Pavano’s next throw: Yankees 3, Twins 2.

I’m a big believer in the human limits of baseball, and I want nothing to do with television replay. I have been impressed time and again by how very good umpires are, and I accept the occasional mistakes they make as the texture on the backdrop of the game. Relying on an umpire’s calls mean granting authority to a powerful, human arbiter. It doesn’t mean every call is accurate, just that the game is played with someone in charge. Accuracy, particularly vaguely scientific accuracy, is overrated.

But back to the seventh inning. Now the Yankees have a man on second, no outs, and a run home. Quite the contrast to the conditions that would follow a correctly called third strike, but that’s baseball. (Yes, I keep muttering that tonight.) After a little bunt single from Brett Gardner, Derek Jeter gets to add still more to his mind-bending heap of postseason stats: an RBI single puts the Yankees up 4-2.

We need a charm for reliever Matt Guerrier’s 1-2-3 eighth inning, but maybe it should be a little cloud for the way his work was overshadowed. It has to symbolize the fact that anything good the Twins do the Yankees can do better. In this instance, consider Andy Pettitte’s 1-2-3 bottom of the seventh. He throttles the Twins, giving them no chance to answer back to the long scoring siege in the top half.

Well, that’s about all the charms I can think of to remember this night. We had such a beautiful season, and such a great ballpark to play in. Fan support, a cohesive team, even an answer—at last—to the dilemma of third base. So maybe there should be a fragment of Target Field limestone on the charm bracelet. That should do it.

I’m uncharacteristically bitter tonight. The Twins are wilting before my eyes, and I have no way to rattle them awake. The psychological aspect of baseball is one reason I love the game, but when I see my beloved team tied in knots by what appears to be abject terror of the Yankees, I am nearing a collapse myself.

There, I got it all out of my system. I can start all over this Saturday. I know, I just know, the Twins can play one game resembling the 94 handsome wins they had this season. They know how. They just have to decide they’re playing the White Sox.

[ALDS game 2] Possibility

When you have to start bringing up the fact that baseball is only game, you’re probably about to apologize for something. And I suppose the Twins do need excuses, but right now I’m thinking about how one goes about watching a game like tonight’s.

Baseball is especially prone to little surprises, and anyone who’s enjoyed watching major leaguers knows that hope is always a reasonable emotion. We’re watching precisely because there is still no limit to the possibilities inside that well-designed diamond, or within the fences of each idiosyncratic ballpark.

Of the eight teams in the 2009 postseason, the Twins are given the least chance to move any closer to a World Series game. They are filler, really—a team for the Yankees to beat. But do not discount the crapshootical qualities of the postseason. It may take very little to lose a game, but it can also take only a lucky hit or two to win one.

So I tell myself as I watch them try to win their first game of the year against the New York Yankees. To make the project more painful, they held the lead in every game they played against New York this season, surrendering it as late as the eighth or ninth inning a few times. They scored the first run and had a (brief) lead in the first game of this playoff series, for that matter.

Though the teams only faced off seven times this year, the two series mattered. The Yankees count their May sweep of the Twins with turning their season around, and the Twins can mark their low point in July, when the Yankees stopped by the Metrodome to clobber them. Immediately after, the Twins picked themselves up with a 20-run onslaught against the White Sox, a lovely over-reaction to the damage the men in the real pinstripes did.

But it’s not possible that it’s actually impossible to beat the Yankees. Hell, the Twins might have been saving it all up for now. What’s so crazy about splitting the series in New York, and moving on to the Metrodome to capture, just maybe, enough home field advantage to win the ALDS?

To prove such a possibility, you’d have to play the first 8-1/2 innings pretty much just as they were played tonight. Nick Blackburn, probably underestimated by New York, didn’t allow a hit until the fifth, or a run until the sixth. It was another A-Rod RBI, sending Derek Jeter in after a double got him on base. Not bad pitching, Mr Blackburn, particularly considering the one run scored merely tied the game.

The Twins scored first, and it’s fair to say no one saw it coming. AJ Burnett had been issuing walks or hits in every inning, but the Twins conducted nothing more than a simple sightseeing tour of the new Yankee Stadium by trotting out to the bags. Burnett shut down the hitter that mattered most each time.

In the sixth, with Delmon Young the latest beneficiary of a free pass, Carlos Gomez tied himself up in eager knots to strike out swinging, but Young made it to second on the contact play, credited with a stolen base.

With two outs, we now get the bad news that Matt Tolbert, never a powerful hitter but at least capable of some clutch-style hits in the Twins dogged campaign of the last three weeks, is out of the lineup. Brendan Harris replaces him, and my first thought is, playing the lefty/righty orientation against Burnett just doesn’t make much sense when your hitters have such gossamer batting averages. I’m unaware that Tolbert has strained his oblique muscle to scuh a degree that he’ll miss the rest of the playoffs . . . what little of them there may be.

In any event, here’s likeable, light-hitting Harris with two outs. Dream on if you consider this a scoring opportunity on a par with, say, Jeter on second and Rodriguez at bat.

But it must be remembered: to have made it to the major leagues at all, and to be standing here in October, your aptitudes are not nothing. Harris plucks himself a triple, swatting the ball to an unpatrolled space in deep center. Young scores, Twins lead, Harris claps dust off his hands as he stands up safe at third.

But our story is not fiction. In the bottom of the same inning, the Yankees administer the antidote, in perfect proportion—Jeter doubles, A-Rod scores him, tie game, harmony of the universe maintained.

But a backwards look must be permitted. In fact, this game is an especially burnished example of a sporting event that includes a “what if” in the telling. In the fourth, Young was on base, this time courtesy of Burnett’s veering fastball that clipped Young near the elbow. Carlos Gomez is up, with two outs, and his repertoire of ways to get on base in such a situation is limited. Fortunately, Burnett thought of one all on his own: hit two consecutive batters!

Here’s Matt Tolbert, and he delivers a single, just as he often did in the long race to bring the Twins to the postseason. Young is motoring hard for home and Gomez, without the most burnished baseball instincts, assumes the play will be at the plate. He skids a bit past second and stumbles on his way to third, then realizes these professional Yankee baseball players know where to throw the ball.

Gomez, stricken with guilt, starts clawing his way back to second, as if he might beat the ball, as if suddenly remembering he has a really important appointment at second.

I’ve played a little softball, enough to experience a tenth of a percent of game situations. I would surely have made the same mistake Gomez did. But baserunners groomed for the majors are supposed to know a simple and pretty infallible trick—turn for third and demand a rundown play, so your teammate can make it home before the last out of the inning is recorded. If the fielders insist on getting you out instead of tackling the lead runner, let them, and make them pay the one-run price. It’s a race, between the man heading home and the last out—and Gomez let them tag him before Young was home. Run lost.

This missing run would loom large throughout the game. Tied in the sixth, any Twins fan just wanted to affix an additional 1 up on that scoreboard. But in the eighth, it looked like we could finally forget about Gomez’s blunder. The Twins scored two, starting their attack with a Gomez walk and a Harris single.

It was Nick Punto who conducted another of his Scrappy Batter clinics, this time securing a single off reliever Phil Hughes. Even when the Yankees brought in Mariano Rivera to quiet these rowdy, childish Twins, Denard Span got a base hit to score another run.

Now, was it OK to start feeling hopeful? Six outs remained, and Matt Guerrier quickly got three of them in the bottom of the eighth, facing down Jorge Posada, Jeter, and Johnny Damon. Is it reasonable to enjoy this moment, this place on the edge of victory?

It’s the bottom of the ninth, Yankee Stadium, and Joe Nathan is up to send the Twins off to Metrodome for game 3 in a 1-1 series tie. That’s the objective, and Nathan is the perfect closer to do it. All I want is a low-stress version of the closing process. OK, Joe?

Nathan lets his first batter, Mark Teixeira, beat him. It’s a single, but it’s a gruesome scar. A-Rod’s up, and has been drinking the special elixir that eliminates all pressure from years of wilting in the postseason. No, A-Rod is going to be perfect from here on in, never again letting an RBI opportunity go to waste in October. He homers. The single most brutal attack upon a closer, and Rodriguez does it with a swift, elegant swing that leaves no doubt.

If there’s a crumb to be scraped up here it’s that Nathan finishes the inning with three straight outs to limit the damage to a tie. And as we go into extra innings, the lost run looms yet again.

The game ends in the eleventh, on the first batter of the inning. Mark Teixeira has the most intoxicating joy in all of sports, hitting a walkoff homer in Yankee Stadium. What compares with that?

I watched this game, feeling hope, watching the Twins strive and fail, and watching the Yankees face some legitimate competition. But as Teixeira’s blast sailed into the leftfield seats, hundreds of happy hands extended for it, I felt the pure and direct kick in the gut. Were the Yankees toying with us all this time? Was I a chump to dream?

Because a loss humiliates not the effort made but the ability to imagine something that in the end can’t be achieved. It mocks dreams.

It does, that is, if you let it. Because I am watching sports for one thing only, and it’s the amazement I feel when the greatest efforts are made, and what’s possible still lies ahead, possible. I’m watching for the rapture of possibility, and even the Yankees are not strong enough to take that away from me.

[ALDS game 1] Playoff Chum

If you root around long enough on the web, you can find a few souls willing to imagine the Twins winning one whole game in the ALDS. There are even some freak-out style commentators who give the Twins a chance to overturn the Yankees, but I suspect they’re saying this for the shock value. No one really expects Minnesota to serve as anything more than chum, thrown over the playoff fishing boat transom.

The Yankees are hungry, and have been stoking their appetite all season. They have reached new levels of financial perfection. Their lineup includes the highest-paid player at every position except outfield and second base, and usually by a big margin. They have the best record in baseball, with 103 regular-season wins.

They have a ballpark that favors home run hitting, and many players able to take advantage of it. They have a young manager with something to prove, spending the season wearing  a 27 on his uniform in homage to the 27th World Series Championship this year could include. They have fans who won’t settle for less, and players accustomed to a very intoxicating level of worship.

They. Can’t. Lose.

In game one on Wednesday, Brian Duensing starts for the Twins. We’re all hoping he’s a little too young to know what’s hit him and can survive in the majesty of the new Yankee ballpark. He faces CC Sabathia, one of the prize Yankee acquisitions this year, who has settled in well amidst the hype and hope.

For two innings, both pitchers look calm and in command. The Twins start with a hopeful double from Denard Span, and the Yankees counterpunch with a leadoff single from Derek Jeter, but neither team assembles a threat.

In the third, the Twins are first to score, often a happy little indicator of success. They start with a leadoff single from Nick Punto, who proves his scrappy at-bat intensity even works on the big stage. Span, alas, erases him with a double play, but a little whisper of the chance of getting to Sabathia arises.

The Twins reel off three consecutive hits, from Orlando Cabrera, Joe Mauer, and Michael Cuddyer, who gets an RBI and sees Cabrera cross home. Cooking this up with two outs starts to feel very invigorating. Jason Kubel can’t exactly cap it off—he’s at the plate when Sabathia launches a passed ball that allows Mauer to score, but ends up a strike out. It’s Twins 2, Yankees nothing.

If you’re looking for a fairytale, go to sleep right here and forget the rest of the game. But if you want to face facts, watch the Yankee lineup systematically solve Duensing on their second trip through.

Jeter starts the cavalcade with the two-run homer in the bottom of the third, allowing the Twins to lead the game for approximately seven minutes—and I’m including the break between innings. Nick Swisher smashes a double that rumbles along the leftfield fence long enough to score another run in the fourth, and put the Yankees up 3-2.

Things are going well for the Yankee hitters. They’re not precisely eviscerating Duensing yet, but then again, it might be more productive to toy with him. More chum off the boat, please!

The Yankees may no longer even be concerned about winning the game; that problem seems solved already. They’ve seen Sabathia settle in to a productive groove, and shake off at least some of his communication problems with Posada that led to that passed ball. They’ve seen the Twins hitters shoot liners to perfectly placed infielders, or strike out against CC’s sharp cutter. But there is one last small test.

Alex Rodriguez, perhaps the most synthetically perfect player of all time, with his tense jaw, tightly scrubbed face, stare-through-the-pitcher hazel eyes, and perfectly ordered muscles, always turns in immaculate season stats. He hit his quota precisely this year: 30 home runs, 100 RBIs, like punching a clock. But he has not yet distinguished himself in a playoff game. In fact, it’s fair to say he’s quite let down the side in these October events.

There are New York fans who are horrified enough at his artificial perfection to continue to wish him ill, and others who yearn to see him triumph. In the fifth inning, he begins improve his postseason record. He shoots a swift line drive to left with two out, and scores Jeter. An RBI gleams in his crown, at last.

The Yankees would garnish the inning with two more runs off a Hideki Matsui homer, now leading 6-2. As the Twins shuffle in and out of the batter’s box, collecting a meager few hits and no more runs, the Yankees take their feet off the gas. They only score one more run, but it’s another A Rod RBI, just for good measure.

Yankees 7, Twins 2. Not much debate about the better team tonight. The Yankees got 6-2/3 great innings from Sabathia, who struck out 8. Manager Joe Girardi also rolled four relievers through, probably to give them experience and comfort in the setting as much as anything. Phil Hughes, Phil Coke, and Joba Chamberlain each collected one or two outs.

Then Mariano Rivera was brought in for a shut-you-up ninth inning. It felt like overkill, really, especially against the bottom of the Twins bating order. Punto managed a walk and Span a single, but of course Rivera had his way in the end.

If Girardi gave his middle relievers some time just to get comfortable in the playoff mode, you might even wonder if the Twins are a tad buoyed up by having two on base against the Mighty Mo. But it’s stretch to find a lot of hope here.

They say defense and pitching wins championships. The Twins showed off some good defense, particularly in Nick Punto’s running snare of a groundball that required him to make the throw to first while spinning into a sideways somersault.

But they also showed a defensive lapse. Delmon Young made a weak throw from left, and Orlando Cabrera handled it poorly in the relay, allowing that run to score on Swisher’s hit. The Twins have cut down runners in that situation, but failed to do so tonight.

The defense, though, will probably do us justice. But Twins pitching, at its very finest, is of the pitch to contact flavor. They don’t have a single pitcher who can hurl pure flames at the plate. Yankee hitters can’t be fooled by much, and can’t be fooled for long, as their second look at Duensing showed. They can be stymied only by pure firepower—Justin Verlander had a chance against them. But the Twins crew will have trouble in every game ahead.

[game 163] Tiebreaker

The Twins and the Tigers are so tied they need an extra game. And they tie that one as well, all the way to the twelfth inning. Throughout the game, one side or the other looked like it just about had things won, only to see the other team claw back. It was a closely fought and balanced a contest as baseball can deliver.

The Twins emptied their pockets and threw everything in. The game took all the players, from the bench and the starting lineup. Here’s what they did.

Alexi Casilla

After not starting in at least three weeks, he’s brought in as a pinch runner and ends up delivering the game-winning RBI in a sweet and simple single to right.

Nick Punto

With the bases loaded, snared a groundball from wily, troublesome Brandon Inge in the twelfth and threw home to force an out. Moments before, Inge ‘s uniform seemed to be grazed by a pitch that would have walked in a run, but the umpire didn’t make the call.

Justin Morneau

Having helped win at least 70 of the team’s 87 victories that made the tie possible, sat happily on the bench to cheer, and hugged Joe Mauer under a cascade of champagne in the clubhouse.

Scott Baker

Pitched six tense innings, with two strikeouts and two walks. Allowed an RBI single from Magglio Ordonez, followed by a world-deflating two-run homer in the third by Miguel Cabrera for the first runs of the game, but picked himself up and avoided a meltdown. Went back to allowing harmless fly ball outs for three more innings.

Denard Span

Singled in the third to advance Matt Tolbert, who would move on to third on a sac fly and then score the Twins’ first run on Detroit pitcher Rick Porcello’s throwing error.

Jason Kubel

Hit a solo homer in the sixth to bring the Twins to within one run, trailing 3-2.

Michael Cuddyer

Hit triple to open the tenth inning, right after the Tigers had gone ahead on an RBI double from wiry, pesky Brandon Inge. Cuddy’s hit was no rocket to leftfield, but he powered around the bases like a runaway train, launching the whole inning.

Brendan Harris

Drew a walk in the tenth following Cuddy’s triple. Merely avoiding an out counted at this stage of the game.

Matt Tolbert

In addition to scooting home on an error, hit an RBI single in the tenth to answer the Tiger run from the top half of the inning. It was only enough to knot things back into a tie, but it kept the game alive.

Joe Mauer

Hit a lonely double that left him stranded in the first inning and, admittedly, didn’t particularly rattle Porcello. Stood firm at the plate, eventually earning a walk, during Porcello’s errant pickoff throw that allowed Tolbert to zip home. Followed Cabrera’s homer in the seventh with a single, but didn’t ignite a further rally. In essence, drew attention away from the lightweight players; looked serene all game long.

Jon Rauch

Part of Ron Gardenhire’s quick-on-the-trigger relief approach to winning the game, got his two men out in relief of Baker in the seventh.

Jose Mijares

Kinda blew it. Brought in to face Curtis Granderson, who has nearly apocalyptic trouble hitting lefties this season, and permitted a single. Gardy switched over to Mijares after only two outs from Rauch, ready to empty his bullpen to keep the game in reach. At this time, Detroit led 3-2. Mijares had every stat working for him, but Granderson outfoxed him in a long at-bat.

Orlando Cabrera

With a two-run homer in the seventh, put the Twins ahead 4-3, their first lead of the game. His home run swing just about lifted him out of his shoes.

Matt Guerrier

Relieved Mijares and shut down the scoring threat in the seventh. Fresh from that triumph, started the eighth by allowing Ordonez to clobber a home run to tie the game all over again. Got one out, then walked two. The whipsaw from joy to sorrow in this inning was harrowing.

Joe Nathan

Summoned in the eighth, with one out and men on first and second, score tied. Ridiculously scary situation. Faced tattooed, deadly Brandon Inge, and got a pop out. Faced surprisingly productive Gerald Laird and struck him out. Went on to complete the ninth, with the tie intact.

Jesse Crain

Started the tenth, fully aware that he’s several notches below Nathan but that it was now very much his turn. Gave up an RBI double to surrender the lead to the Tigers. At rock bottom, saw Tolbert hit the single that scored Cuddyer and re-tied the game, then started the eleventh.

Ron Mahay

Brought in with the same assignment Mijares had—giving Granderson an intimidating lefty to face. Struck him out swinging.

Bobby Keppel

Obtained what would be the last four outs, earning credit for the win. Survived a stomach-churning top of the twelfth by dishing out a walk, single, and intentional walk, then facing gritty, dangerous Inge. Brushed Inge’s jersey with a pitch that the umpire did not register, then served up the infield single Punto would turn into a fielder’s choice out at the plate. Finished the inning with a strikeout of Laird. Would have mopped brow but for bald head.

Carlos Gomez

Stayed patient enough to single, leading off the twelfth inning; was careful enough not to try a steal against Gerald Laird, instead advancing to second on Cuddyer’s groundout; ran fast enough to score on Casilla’s single; slid crazily enough across home plate to make a highlight reel.

Jose Morales

Struck out twice. And you know what? We forgive him!

Delmon Young

Made outs. But received an intentional walk in the twelfth to bring up Casilla, who would hit the game-winning RBI. So you know what? We’re happy Young was in the game!

Mike Redmond

Circled the field with the rest of the team after the win, wearing one of the instantly provided Central Division Champions T-shirts and hats that Major League Baseball wants everyone to buy. (The Tigers’ versions will be sent to a relatively impoverished nation with low baseball savvy and limited opportunities for Americans to encounter the patently false sartorial claims.)

Brian Duensing

Looked adorable drenched in champagne, and without, for now, a care in the world about starting against the Yankees tomorrow in New York.

[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.

[game 161] Two Perils

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.