Tag Archives: Joe Mauer

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.

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[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 155] Batter v Pitcher

The Twins had to win today, as they’ll have to win every day for the next week. Most particularly, it behooved them to win if the Tigers did. But, happy news, the Tigers did not.

A Twins loss would simply hold them steady at two games behind Detroit. A Twins win—oh, la!—would push them up to one game back.

But a Twins win would also mean a loss or a no decision for Zack Greinke, estimable pitcher of the Kansas City Royals. There’s not much crowding at the top of the list of the best things about the Royals. Greinke is the pride of KC, followed at a discrete distance by young, cherubic, power hitter Billy Butler.

And Greinke is now in a season-end battle of his own, for the Cy Young award. While the Twins strive to win the division, we can be pretty confident Joe Mauer has the AL batting title sewn up. But Greinke is one of six plausible Cy Young winners.

There’s no clear-cut leader because each of the other worthies has cornered one or two of the typical hot stats. Greinke leads in ERA and is second in strikeouts. But he’s far back in wins, and with two starts to go the best he can do is 17. He needs a victory today.

It’s fair to assume that manager Trey Hillman will do what he can to assure that victory, and that the rest of the team is keen to earn it for Greinke. They wouldn’t mind troubling the Twins for plain old divisional cred, but they’re playing for their teammate even more intensely.

Add to this mix the fact that the key blemish in Greinke’s record can pretty much be defined as being employed by the Royals. The team defeats its pitchers in the classic way, by failing to score many runs and operating a leaky bullpen. If any team owes its pitcher, it’s these Royals—they’re wrecked too many of his starts already.

OK, then: everyone wants to win this baseball game, and all for fine and glorious reasons. But only one team will.

Fitting, then, that Yuniesky Betancourt should lead off the scoring for the Royals. In both prior games of the series, Betancourt made a key error that allowed the Twins to take the lead. He makes amends in the second inning by walloping a three-run homer off Francisco Liriano.

Liriano didn’t last much longer, but the baserunners he left on would be stranded by Jeff Manship. The Twins would have to grind through the bullpen for the rest of game, mindful of avoiding over-use so that all the key pitchers would be ready for the four-game series in Detroit that starts tomorrow.

A three-run deficit against Zack Greinke is bleak, but not impossibly bleak. In the third inning, the Twins began mounting their comeback, christening it with a leadoff walk earned by Matt Tolbert. Nick Punto and Denard Span followed with rather limp little singles and the bases were loaded with no one out.

If Greinke was now allowing a walk to the non-intimidating Tolbert and hits to the sturdy if not stellar Punto and Span, what would he do as the strength of the lineup faced him?

First, he’d tie up Orlando Cabrera, obtaining a weak infield grounder that served as a fielder’s choice to cut down Tolbert at the plate. Bases still loaded, but one hitter down.

Joe Mauer comes to the plate. Now, a batting title isn’t truly the measure of what fans value most in baseball today. Mauer hits safely more often than any other player in all of baseball, but many of those hits are singles. Yes, he’s had much more of a home run tear this season, but his prime skill is shooting the ball past the infield and standing safely at first. Solid, but not sexy.

Yet this is precisely the talent we need right now. A clean single scores two, and a burly double clears the bases. Joe Mauer is the perfect hitter for the occasion.

Mauer takes a strike, as he just about always does. It doesn’t matter that Greinke has been throwing about 97 and has already struck out Mauer in the first. Taking a strike is part of Mauer’s way of zeroing in on what needs to be done.

And Greinke is, perhaps, reasonably wary of this prodigious hitter. He deposits the next two pitches well out of the strike zone. Mauer doesn’t reach for them, and now we have a nice situation: Mauer ahead in the count, and unfooled by the mighty Greinke. The bases are creaking, ready to release the runners. Mauer stands in.

The ball runs inside, and then, at the maddening last minute, unwinds itself across the plate. Strike looking. And Mauer was looking in at his own shins to scoot them out of the way, but he’d been fooled. It’s 2-2.

When the bases are loaded and any kind of contact is likely to score a runner, pitchers crave strikeouts. It’s really the only tool for the job. Admittedly, Greinke just got Cabrera to cough up a weak grounder, but the only real goal now is getting strike three past Mauer. And the crowd is yelling for it.

Best statistical hitter in baseball versus Cy Young candidate pitcher. Don’t blink, because Greinke is cranking up out there. And the ball hurtles in and Mauer launches his exquisitely beautiful swing, the most practically elegant rotation of hips and shoulders in the majors, the most supple extension of arms. And he completes the swing, still as picture-perfect as ever, but that ball darted down so low so fast Mauer wasn’t ever going to find it. Strikeout.

With two outs, the problems confronting Jason Kubel are more serious. Only a hit will do now, just as only a K would have served Greinke against Mauer. Kubel not only has to come up with a base hit, he has to do it in a ballpark he is quoted as loathing. He’s backed up that complaint in this series, hitting little or nothing over the last two games.

Now the weight of the world is on Kubel, because how many more times are the Twins going to have the bases loaded against Greinke with a chance to demolish the Royals’ early lead?

Kubel takes a strike, taking a page out of Mauer’s Big Book of Hitting. Then he watches a ball high and outside. Surely, Mr Greinke, you don’t think I’ll nibble at that?

And a second ball for which Kubel refuses to lunge. Once again, the count favors the hitter, if microscopically so. Once again, Twins hopes rise while the KC crowd bellows for their pitcher. There is no way he’s getting both our best lefthanded hitters, no way we’re not scoring, no way he is wiggling out, entirely out, of a bases loaded/no out jam.

So Grienke throws strike two, a bollixing bullet that Kubel can’t tackle. He stares, and he can do all the bating glove adjusting he likes, but there was an unpleasant little overtone there, a feeling that Greinke can power any pitch to any part of the plate he likes.

Kubel taps the bat back on his shoulder and steadies himself. Greinke winds up and lets it fly and Kubel, all arms and legs now, tries to find some piece of it to foul it off and save himself for the next pitch. But he misses, pure and simple. Kubel slams his bat head down and slumps away, furious, miserable, defeated.

Greinke beat back the best the Twins could offer in the most important moment in the game. The Twins did stage a few other threats, and at no point did they look ready to quit. But they would never have quite so crisp  chance, and they would never push more than a single run across.

Watching Greinke foil Mauer and Kubel put me in two places at once. I ached for the Twins to win, of course, and these are the players I love to see coming through in the clutch. But the mastery and power Greinke showed on the mound was riveting too. He was, simply, excellent

Greinke and Justin Verlander have been splitting my personal vote for the Cy Young for the last month or so. Both are deserving, but there is an almost horrifying beauty to Greinke’s power and resolve. He gets my vote.

At least he does today. For there’s a special Cy Young obstacle course set for the Twins. They will have to face Greinke once again next weekend, and Verlander in between.

The Twins lost no ground to the Tigers—both teams lost. Tomorrow the series in Detroit begins, and I can’t spare any more mercy for the pitcher on an opposing team. No more savoring the excellence of the other side; we don’t have the margin for it.

[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 144] Joy

You can count the rest of the season. You can count it in the seven games remaining against the Tigers, or against teams that ought to be (here’s hoping) pushovers. You can count the games remaining in the Metrodome itself, and the number is so small that this afternoon the TV crew was given a chance to have a last little pickup game on soon-to-be rolled up carpet.

But most of all, you can count the season in opportunities. We’re in that limbo now when it’s mathematically possible to win the division, but the likelihood dims each day. Yes, there are enough games left to do it in, but where will the spark come from to light up those chances?

Having failed to use the Oakland A’s as a punching bag, the Twins opened a series against the Indians at the Dome tonight. Would they oblige as patsies and let us take a few steps toward the Tigers?

They started lefty Jeremy Sowers, the pitcher who’d caused the Twins so much trouble in his last outing against them. And tonight he went seven shimmering innings, confining the Twins to a handful of little hits.

Sowers doesn’t mow batters down with strikeouts and doesn’t throw much above 90 mph, but he garners groundouts with the best of them. He tied Denard Span up in knots, and seemed to trick every other hitter into chopping the ball up the middle for an easy out.

Everyone but Joe Mauer, that is. Mauer continued his march toward the batting title by going 3 for 3 tonight, all singles. But no following batter was able to nudge him as far as third, and the Twins were blanked for seven innings.

Carl Pavano made few mistakes on the mound for the Twins, but two bad pitches were enough. He walked rookie catcher Lou Marson and then served up a home run ball to Trevor Crowe. Crowe, batting ninth, will remember the moment—it was his first big league dinger.

One inning later, Pavano allowed a solo homer to Shin-Soo Choo, and the Indians were up 3-0 with an apparently impregnable Sowers on the mound.

And in fact, the secret of winning this game was getting past Sowers to the bullpen. The normally hard as nails Tony Sipp faced Orlando Cabrera, who hit a bat-splintering chopper to short. Asdrubal Cabrera mishandled the ball, and on that error the eighth inning began.

Facing Mauer, who had placed his singles neatly to left, center, and right, Sipp may have been concerned that the necklace was missing the home run jewel. He walked Mauer, and the Indians trotted out righty Chris Perez to face Michael Cuddyer.

Here the game, and the season, balance for a moment. If Cabrera hadn’t made that error, and if Sipp hadn’t flinched against Mauer, the three-run lead might well have stood up. There weren’t a lot of fans on a Monday in the Metrodome to spur the team, but this was the time when the players themselves would have to pluck desire from the ashes. At this balancing point, it could have gone either way.

Cuddyer did the magical thing. There isn’t anything more magical than parking the ball in the seats to tie a game that had looked hopeless for two hours. With a brisk swing, Cuddy lifted us all as high as the ball he crushed to center.

A tie still requires a lot of tending to convert into a win. Perez started cleaning up his mess by getting an out, then faced Delmon Young.

It was Young’s birthday, and he already had the basis of a celebration by scratching out one of the six hits Sowers permitted. Perez tried to shake off the massive homer he’d allowed, but couldn’t. Young nicked his second single.

Matt Tolbert followed with a blooper hit that floated out of range in shallow left, and Young had the presence of mind to motor all the way to third base.

Jason Kubel came up, pinch hitting for Carlos Gomez. Good choice, Mr Gardenhire. Kubel was out of the starting lineup with a sore neck, but he limbered up enough to get the count to 2-2. Perez, showing real strain, unleashed a wild pitch that allowed Young to scoot home with the go-ahead run.

Oh, the ignominy. But it got worse for poor Perez. A few pitches later, Kubel found the fastball he was looking for and punched it into the plastic seats in right. 6-3 Twins, a comeback built from swings of pure joy.

There are some ways of showing that joy. Cuddy, for example, has been raising the stakes on his post-homer high fives all season. He’s taken to smacking the welcoming committee in the dugout so hard that his teammates must wince in pain. Tonight was no exception—Gardy yelped “Ow!”

Kubel isn’t as punishing in his happiness. He tends to beam like a cherub, and I can’t quite see what’s keeping his teammates from rubbing his buzz cut head after he tosses his batting helmet on the rack. There was a lot of exuberance in that eighth inning.

Joe Nathan is still dead set on showing a high degree of difficulty of his saves. These isn’t skating, Joe! You don’t have to add that triple axle! In any case, after two smooth outs he permitted Indians to occupy first and second before coaxing a grounder to end the game.

Meanwhile, the Tigers were behind the Blue Jays, but overcame a three-run deficit in the ninth inning to go on and win the game. The Twins managed to stay 5-1/2 games back—not gaining ground, but not losing any either. That Tigers win looked every bit as magical as the treat we had from Cuddy and Kubel. How can we catch those Tags?

On the heels of this happy win came the news that Justin Morneau will be out for the rest of the season. His dwindling batting average is now explained: he has a stress fracture in his back that will require rest. It’ll heal, but it will do so on its on, in its own sweet time.

A postseason push with Morneau feels nearly impossible. In fact, the recent drop in the standings ties in all too neatly with Morneau’s hitting woes. With him and Crede lost, it’s tough to strike fear in any playoff team’s heart.

Morneau’s season is now frozen with 30 homers and 100 RBI. I remember when those nice numbers rolled over his odometer last Wednesday. I had thought he might have fixed something and set himself back on the hitting path. But this is where he will leave off, and pick up next year.

His average had been plunging, and to have it come to rest at .274 seems unfair. He had something like 7 hits in his last 70 at-bats, and that’ll ruin any average. But his season was far better than these last numbers betray. He kept the team going for the entire month of April when Mauer was out, and then, when the two of them went marching shoulder to shoulder, it looked like the Twins could be champs of the central.

Technically, I am at pains to observe, this is still so. Tonight’s win shows a bit of the heat and light we must see. But the big concern right now is which force is stronger, the loss of Morneau or the beauty of this come from behind rally?

It was a wonderful night, outcome included. Span made an elegant sliding catch and a beautiful bullet of a throw to third. Nick Punto hustled himself a hit by diving across first base, and hustled himself a stolen base in the same dusty manner. Young collected two hits on his 24th birthday.

Cuddyer had a milestone too, for the homer tonight was the 100th of his career. If you value your hands, don’t want to high five him, but you do want to celebrate.

[games 131, 132] Cheered

I am cheered by the Twins. Which is, after all, the point. But we do tend to overcomplicate our sports—every failure, and even every success, generates oceans of criticism.

But tonight, I am cheered by the Twins. Though they still hover near .500, they’ve actually made a radical turnaround. They were 4-9 in the first half of August, but 10-5 in the last two weeks. It’s a gruesome way to go 14-14, with a losing spell that seemed never to end and a winning phase that could do no more than counterbalance the losses.

But that winning arc isn’t over. The Twins might be climbing somewhere.

In the last two weeks, they swept Kansas City and won series against Baltimore and Texas. They started a three-game series with Chicago last night and won by using the full complement of baseball aptitudes.

There was good pitching from Nick Blackburn, solid relief pitching, and a tidy save by Joe Nathan. A little power hitting, plus your basic base hits. And solid fielding throughout the game, much in contrast to some blunders by the White Sox.

Tonight, Jeff Manship made his first major league start, and it was a pleasant surprise. Ron Gardenhire has been patching a leaking pitching boat all season, with injuries and ineffectiveness creating constant turmoil in the rotation. Manship went five solid innings and allowed one run and four hits.

But what I’m really cheering about is the pattern of the game. It was scoreless through four, and neither team seemed to have the upper hand.

The White Sox scored first, but the Twins had a ready reply in the bottom of the same inning. Alexi Ramirez homered off Manship in the fifth, and then Michael Cuddyer duplicated the feat against Sox starter John Danks. If you can break my pitcher’s shutout, I can break yours.

The Twins added another run in the sixth, and a third in the seventh, on Cuddyer’s second homer of the evening. A 3-1 lead is a wobbly little thing, but with only six outs to go and Nathan in the bullpen, it didn’t seem too frail to get us home safe.

The test of the team is what it does when discouragements arise. In fact, I think that’s why we watch sports in the first place, simply to see a template for facing adversity. Tonight, we got our object lesson in the eighth inning.

Jose Mijares, normally a very effective bridge to Nathan, has lately had a knack for settling down very slowly when he starts an inning. As in, walking the first man he faces. It’s a jam I’ve watched him get out of many times, but tonight, to protect our second place position in the division against the Sox, Gardy pulled Mijares after the four-pitch walk to Scott Podsednik.

Matt Guerrier was brought in to face Gordon Beckham. Guerrier wasn’t going to get any time to settle down either, for Beckham sent the first pitch he saw rocketing over the leftfield wall.

All air seemed to leave the Metrodome. It may have been an oddity of the position of microphones, but I kept hearing the low hum of the ventilation system, suddenly louder, and sadder, than the fans. The game was tied, and there were no outs.

The rest of the inning had some ugly moments, though they won’t amount to anything in the box score. Guerrier got his three outs, but not before throwing two wild pitches. Joe Mauer failed to scoop up one of them, and AJ Pierzynski beat his throw to first after swinging at strike three. Briefly, the Twins looked shaken, and unraveled.

The Metrodome’s horrid ventilators were heaving the air in and out while the Twins struggled to retire the White Sox. But against the last batter, when Guerrier had gotten two strikes on Carlos Quentin, I heard cheers start up. The fans felt like rallying, and made their hopes known. And indeed, it was strike three to end the inning,

The Twins couldn’t solve the problem in their half of the eighth, but they put together a thoroughly exciting ninth inning. Jason Kubel led off with a single against reliever Matt Thornton. Gardy, looking for every advantage, installed Nick Punto to do the remaining running for Kubel.

Ozzie Guillen wasn’t about to be outmanaged by Gardenhire if he could help it. He headed to the mound to pull Thornton, and brought in Tony A. Pena, a reliever I’d never seen before.

With none out, Cuddyer is up and no one is surprised to see he doesn’t have a third homer in him. He flied out. Now Brendan Harris is up. I may be overgenerous about him, but I know I’ve seen him collect a bigger than average share of small clutch hits.

And tonight is no exception. He singles, and Punto stands at third, aching to reach home and win the game.

A sacrifice fly will do it now, but Carlos Gomez cannot put together the swing for it. He strikes out, and the weight of the tie starts to settle heavily on everyone in the stadium.

Gardy has one last out, and one last plan. He wants a pinch hitter for Alexi Casilla, and calls on Jose Morales. Morales has only recently been called back up. He’s the backup catcher to the backup catcher, but has shown quite a penchant for pinch hitting. It’s time to try him again.

Morales nailed the second pitch, hitting a hard liner to center. Punto’s home and the Twins win.

It’s cheering, in every respect. The team mobs Morales and exults. We’re beating our closest pursuer, and we’re doing it despite the obstacles that arise. The team is drawing on the young, the inexperienced, and the largely overlooked, but getting solid work from them. And somehow, there’s a belief that those 3-1/2 games between us and the Tigers. . . well, that’s not Everest, now is it?