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.