Tag Archives: Joe Nathan

[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.

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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 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?

[game 130] Contending

The winner of Sunday’s final game in the series between the Twins and the Rangers will consider it consolation for a tough loss, for both teams have had one of those. The Twins scraped a victory on Friday, 3-2, while the Rangers won 3-0 yesterday. The shutout was brutal, of course, but it wasn’t as if the Rangers were feasting on Twins pitching either—two runs were assembled in a minor outburst in the first inning, with a solo homer in the ninth to complete the bookend.

So the game today must really decide the series. And it’s not so much which of these two teams has the better rotation, bullpen, or batting order. No, the real question is which one is ready to contend for postseason play.

The Rangers are trying to catch the Red Sox for the AL wild card. At 2-1/2 games back as of today, the dream is very real. They must also shake off the pesky Rays, two games behind them but perhaps looking winded—they just gave up Scott Kazmir to the Angels at the trading deadline, which looks like a surrender flag to me.

The Twins have no real hope of the wild card, but the Central division crown is within reach, thanks, largely to Detroit’s failure to fortify themselves in the top spot. The Twins have edged ahead of the White Sox for second place, but that’s still a full 4-1/2 games back.

Both the Twins and the Rangers have been showing off their pitching in this series, including the Twins’ newly-appointed bullpen. Considering the collective hitting prowess of these two teams, not to mention the presence of baseball’s current batting champ, hits and runs have been eerily scarce.

On Sunday, Scott Baker started for the Twins, and had two sharp innings, only to fall into his typical pit in the third inning. The recipe for trouble with Baker is: lots of pitches, including a steady, dreary rain of foul balls, plus two or three hits strung together for a run. It never looks like bad pitching until it’s over.

Baker was only touched for one run this time, on an RBI single from Elvis Andrus following a double from Ivan Rodriguez. If you ever want to remind yourself how thin the line between losing and winning can be, dissect a Scott Baker inning. Rodriguez’s hit came on a pretty good pitch, and though I didn’t see what Andrus hit, I doubt it was a howler of a mistake. Yet the Rangers were on the scoreboard first.

Baker bounced back with a quick 1-2-3 fourth inning, while the Twins collected isolated hits and walks for three innings, but couldn’t push anyone all the way around the merry-go-round.

In the bottom of the fourth, the Twins punch through the tissue paper between success and failure. They start the inning with a Justin Morneau double followed by a beefy Jason Kubel home run to right. Lead reversed on a single pitch, and the Twins were up 2-1.

Kevin Millwood, starting for the Rangers, has the nutty career distinction of never having beaten Minnesota. When Kubel rapped that homer, he may have realized he wasn’t going to complete that quest in the Metrodome itself. He will have to take the project on to Target Field next year.

Before the inning ended, Mike Redmond, typically the Twins Sunday catcher, hit a sharp line drive that rattled up to the base of the wall, giving the slow-footed Redmond more than enough time to collect a triple. He was exulting on third base while the cameras caught a dancing Carlos Gomez and a laughing Ron Gardenhire in a dugout that was celebrating Redmond’s three-bagger.

No, Redmond never scored and the triple isn’t significant, but the little sense of joy I saw there reminded me that playoff teams operate on fun as well as skill. The Twins were enjoying themselves today, close game or not.

Baker followed with a 1-2-3 fifth and an easy sixth to show the Rangers he can confine his woes to single innings, and single runs.

However, he had one more bad inning, and again, it was barely bad but it was bad enough to make a difference. A two-run homer from Nelson Cruz put the Rangers back on top, 3-2.

Time for another test of the potentially contending team. The Rangers passed theirs by snatching back the lead, and the Twins had a golden chance in the seventh, against reliever Jason Grilli. With one out, Denard Span doubled and Alexi Casilla followed with a hard-earned walk. That brings Joe Mauer to the plate.

Screenwriters must flinch when trying to write the story of a baseball game. I mean, how realistic is it to put your star player in the batter’s box with the game on the line? But it’s precisely what we have this afternoon, even if Mauer’s bat doesn’t have a lightning scar on it.

You could write us into this spot, but reality intrudes. Mauer’s arcing hit to center was gathered up by Marlon Byrd, who hustled hard to scoop it. Denard Span left second, all too certain of a hit, and became the final out by running as if there were already two outs. Opportunity lost.

Morneau led off the eighth with a walk against new reliever CJ Wilson. Kubel followed with a single, and Gardenhire sent Gomez in to run for the slow, stocky Kubel.

With no outs and two on and the game likely on the line, the Twins got another test of whether they want to contend. CJ Wilson struck out Michael Cuddyer to rebalance the inning in the Rangers’ favor. But they weren’t out of the woods yet.

Brendan Harris hit a grounder that shot through the infield, allowing Morneau to score the tying run. Cruz’ throw from the outfield went wide of the plate and allowed Gomez to advance to third and Harris to second.

On an infield chopper to Hank Blalock at first, Gomez took off for home. It was gutsy, but he had a good lead and beat the slightly offline throw. Now up 4-3, the Twins still have only one out and men on first and third.

Little Nicky Punto, master of the squeeze bunt, brought in Harris and was safe at first. Harris crossed home before Rodriguez could get a handle on the ball, and then Rodriguez’s throw to first was well behind the speedy Punto.

With two little infield hits—no power, only strategy—the Twins climb up 5-3. They used the talent they had and made it work. Sometimes being a contending team means admitting your shortcomings and making a virtue of them.

Joe Nathan always seems to find new ways to add excitement to the closer’s job. Here to preserve a two-run lead, he walked Hank Blaclock after starting him 0-2.

Nathan hunts around in his repertoire to find a double play ball to pitch to Cruz. He almost found it, too, but Cruz hit a lucky liner to left to put men on first and second. The ball poked through the left side of the infield, and suddenly Nathan looked terribly vulnerable.

Rodriguez took a swinging strike, then knocked the next pitch lazily straight to Nathan. This is the double play, no doubt about it. But Nathan seems to overplay it, rebalancing his feet and throwing flat and slightly wide to second. The ball bounced past the infielder and everyone was safe.

Bases loaded. Baseball never requires much math, and we’ve been answering one question all inning: where’s the tying run? At the plate, on first, on second. Far too close for comfort.

Who knows how Nathan survives these dramas. His shakes his head and exhales mightily, and I end up mimicking him from the couch. What other gesture is possible while watching someone move through a minefield?

Now Nathan settles down to collect his three necessary outs: strike out, fly out, groundout. Twins win.

Nothing I saw this weekend counts the Rangers out on their journey toward the postseason. But the main thing I saw was a sense of resolve, and a sense of fun, on the part of the Twins.

Yes, contending rhymes with pretending, making for some pretty catchy and sometimes superficial classifications. I know as well as anyone that the Twins have an extremely questionable starting rotation. And I know it’s important to start distancing yourself from your team about now, lest they break your heart. But the Twins have more than simple possibility on their side. They have Mike Redmond, playing once a week, hustling out that happy triple. That’s contending.

[game 123] Floating

Baseballs float. Only occasionally, but they do. In the eighth inning of Saturday’s game against the Royals, Michael Cuddyer lofted a ball to shallow right. It was not far beyond first base, and it hung in the air with a rapturous pause. Three fielders converged on it, but some force of  fortune let the ball drop in the narrow patch of grass none of them could reach.

This hit would be classified as a blooper, as if we needed apologize for a double earned by the maddening geometry of a baseball field. And, in truth, it confers little glory on Cuddyer’s hitting prowess. But it essentially won the game, so let us now praise imperfect hits.

Cuddyer hit it right after a double play had erased a runner. But Orlando Cabrera escaped that carnage to find asylum on third base, and scored on Cuddyer’s bloop to give the Twins an 8-6 lead.

They would need it, for the Royals gave reliever Matt Guerrier all he could handle in the bottom of the ninth. (Joe Nathan wasn’t in his usual closer’s spot after pitching two full innings last night, blowing the save and then watching the Twins come back to hand him the win.) Guerrier notched a strikeout, but gave up two singles and then watched a run score on a fielder’s choice.

And the fielder appeared to make a poor choice at that. Alexi Casilla, at second base, threw to second for the sure force out while the runner was crossing the plate. But it looked like he could have started a double play to end the game. So it’s Twins 8, Royals 7 with one out to go.

Guerrier is not the majestic presence Nathan is, so the game was much in doubt here. But Royals right-fielder Josh Anderson rapped an easy grounder to second the end the game and allow the Twins to climb within three games of .500.

Baseballs floated and fell in funny ways all through the game. Early on, the Twins staked themselves to a 3-0 lead, on a solo homer from Cuddyer and a 2-RBI double from Jason Kubel one inning later. The Royals answered with a two runs of their own in the fifth.

Then the game got interesting.

Twins fans have set their alarm clocks for the sixth inning during this last week. Twice Minnesota rallied from massive deficits to tally comeback wins against the Rangers, garnering the majority of the runs in the sixth. And when they just happened to fail to obliterate another Rangers lead in the game last Thursday, it looked more like an oversight than conventional baseball odds.

So tonight, with a skinny lead in Kansas City, the Twins started the sixth by adding more proof that some minor baseball deity will smile upon their exploits in that one particular inning. Joe Mauer allowed two strikes to pile up on him, as he often does. This time he tried and failed to check a hopeless swing for strike three. But the pitch he flinched at bounced at the plate and skittered away from catcher Miguel Olivo.

Mauer, perfectly schooled in all the best baseball practices, took off immediately for first to outrun the throw on a dropped strike three. He won the race, and led off the inning on the deluxe strikeout/wild pitch combo.

Royals starter Kyle Davies banished Kubel on a fly out, but walked Cuddyer  and could only obtain a fielder’s choice from Delmon Young. There were men on first and third without a hit in the inning.

Then the Twins decided to do more than surf on the weird waves of their sixth inning mojo. Brendan Harris, Carlos Gomez, and Casilla hit three neat singles in a row, sending Davies to the showers and three runs across the plate. The Twins had a perky 6-2 lead.

The Royals went on the attack to score two in the bottom of the sixth and two more in the seventh, but never gained the lead.

We always follow the score, but this was a game in which you wanted to watch the baseball itself. Denard Span misplayed a Royals hit to right that rattled to the wall in an eerie recreation of a Twins hit the bollixed the KC right-fielder the night before. I’d check that wall for hidden magnets, force fields, or maybe Severus Snape’s season ticket.

In the third inning, Alexi Casilla did a perfect Superman leap, the kind your mother doesn’t even want you trying on your bed. He followed the ball so well he was able to fly after it, laying out flat to catch it and throw to first for a double play that ended a scoring threat.

Now, it would be an exaggeration to say that the pitches Brian Duensing threw for this first major league win were as fascinating as those floating, bouncing, or flying balls. Duensing faced some pressure most innings, but his final stats are pretty: a win, three strikeouts, one walk, and six hits. Yes, he allowed two earned runs, but they came on a double from Olivio, who would be his penultimate batter. Until the fifth, Duensing kept the Royals off the scoreboard.

The Twins built themselves an especially enjoyable win tonight, but they continue to languish on the far fringes of contention. Perhaps they will be buoyed up to run off a real string of wins, but until they can repeat this success at will, we are left with the pleasure of little gems like Casilla’s lunge in the air or Mauer’s pure presence of mind or Cuddyer’s ghost-floating double. I’m happy to have these joys, and am starting to feel they’ll be all I collect this season. So savor them I shall.

[games 114, 115, 116, 117] Suspense

The difference between the game summary and the game is suspense. Normally, the title gives it all away: Royals Squeak Past Twins 5-4 (Thursday’s game), Twins Annihilate Indians 11-0 (Friday) or Indians Prevail Over Twins 7-3 (Saturday). But today, there’s going to be no hammering, toppling, clobbering, or crushing. I want to look at suspense itself.

What makes a game interesting to watch? The plain, pure exhilaration of successful hitting is the typical reward for setting aside some hours for baseball. Some snappy fielding is pleasure, however ephemeral. Depending on your point of view (literally and figuratively), a top pitching performance can make a game great to watch.

But the truth is, over the three hours, these treats are doled out as sparingly as sunny days in Seattle. Sure, they happen, but if you’re building your world around them, you’ll often be disappointed. It’s not the hits themselves, it’s the suspense about when the hits will happen.

Sunday’s game against the Indians brought to an end a six-game home stand that could have given the Twins a big leg up on the divisional race. These games were little cauldrons of suspense, then—would the Twins catch the Tigers?

One point of suspense was over before today’s contest began. The Twins scratched out one win against the Royals and were 1-1 in the weekend series against the Indians. The best they could achieve across the two series is a 3-3 mark. That’s the best they could do, and it wouldn’t be an especially useful best.

Even before the game began, the Twins were slogging their way through the August schedule. Let’s zoom out a little further, where we see them swept by the Angels at the start of the month, then losing two of three apiece to the Indians and to Detroit on the road. If the home stand was going to turn that around, we’d need more than a .500 showing.

Some suspense, in other words, is gone already. The Twins simply aren’t that likely to win these days. Their 56-60 record coming into today’s game defines the low probability as a .474 winning percentage. Winning less than even half the time does not inspire much real suspense.

Central to suspense is the architecture of possibility. With 27 outs, a baseball game has a lavish number of chances; so much so that outs are routinely squandered. So we start today without much likelihood—that pesky winning percentage, the recent track record, and a hitting lineup in which a third of the players hit below .260. But we have 27 outs to get something from the other two-thirds, who hit near .300, never forgetting our .377-hitting catcher hero, Joe Mauer.

The Indians starter was lefthander Aaron Laffey, who’s been piling up wins lately: 4-1 in his last five, and getting there honestly, with a 2.03 ERA. Two probability pillars crumble here, as the Twins lineup leans so much on lefties that pitcher handedness ought to influence the outcome inordinately. It’s a tribute to how well Denard Span, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Jason Kubel hit lefties that we have a fighting chance today.

The Twins started Nick Blackburn, fresh off a disastrous outing against Kansas City. Blackburn lasted less than two innings and allowed 6 of the 14 runs the Royals accumulated in a humiliating series opener last Tuesday. So another kernel of suspense arises: will Blackburn turn things around, or stay on a losing trajectory? His last win was July 10th, and he hasn’t gone over 6 innings since.

It’s hard to carve much suspense out of the conditions as the game begins, but there’s one stubborn fact we can’t ignore. The Twins still have a chance in this mediocre division, and have two remarkable players on their roster. And they get to play, at home, what’s left of the Indians after their fire sale. Winning remains possible.

Let’s fill in some blanks on the scorecard, then. The Twins have a hearty little inning in the bottom of the second. A single from Kubel was followed by a double from Michael Cuddyer, and with men on second and third, Joe Crede’s lightweight liner was enough to score one. Delmon Young capped things off with a two-out, two-run homer to give the Twins a quick 3-0 lead.

The Indians responded to this immediately. Very immediately—the first pitch out of Blackburn’s hand was blasted to the seats in left by light-hitting catcher Kelly Shoppach. Blackburn, mind you, had set the Indians down in order for two innings, and had appeared to shake off his recent pitching problems. His potential cakewalk through the bottom third of the order started ominously.

Blackburn had time to get one strike on Luis Valbuena, he of the .233 average, before Valbuena thwacked the next pitch high into the right field bleachers. Shoppach and Valbuena not only went back to back, they hit their measly tenth and sixth homers of the season. Blackburn was ladling balls over the plate.

The inning grew more gruesome. Andy Marte reached by being hit by a pitch. and sturdy Grady Sizemore did his duty by homering. The score kept tipping away from the Twins: 3-0, 3-1, 3-2, and then 3-4 on Sizemore’s blast. Losing the lead didn’t mean losing suspense, though. The Indians weren’t ahead by that much.

Then again, they weren’t done. Blackburn hadn’t gotten an out yet, and Jamey Carroll wasn’t about to be the first of them. He singled, and Asdrubal Cabrera hit a long double that rattled around in left long enough to score Carroll. 5-3, Indians.

Now the suspense concerns how long Blackburn will stay in this game. If he can get back on track, he could take some pressure off the bullpen, prove that he can buckle back down and find his groove, and give the Twins an opportunity to reply. But after Cabrera’s double, Ron Gardenhire tells Jesse Crain to start throwing in the bullpen.

Blackburn collects one out when Shin-Soo Choo grounds out to advance Cabrera to third. The tide could turn right here. Jhonny Peralta is up, a decent contact hitter but not an intimidating presence at the plate. But Blackburn is treating everyone to fat, fluffy pitches today, and Peralta carves out an RBI single.

Crain relieved Blackburn and restored order, but not before experiencing a bases-loaded jam built from a walk and an error. The Indians are up 6-3, having sent 12 men to the plate.

Suspense, however, is hardly gone. The game is young, and the lead is not towering. But once the bottom of the third passes with the Twins filing up to the plate and back to the dugout on a double play and a fly out, the Indians’ edge grows a little greater. By failing to answer back, the Twins have conceded a little more to the Tribe.

With six innings left, a Twins fan still has much reason to hope. In three of those innings, the leadoff hitter will reach first. Laffey never has a 1-2-3 innings, and the Twins bullpen in the person of Crain, Jeff Manship, and Jose Mijares, and Joe Nathan, will allow only 6 more hits. Crain allowed a run in the fourth on a pair of doubles, but the Indians had nothing more to say after their lavish 6-run third inning.

Is hope the same as suspense? This game is the kind of matchup the Twins simply have to win if they want to contend, but that’s hope, not probability. Hope rose and fell in waves in the eighth and ninth, as time ticked away.

Mauer led off the eighth with a single. Optimal conditions for a comeback: our best hitter gets his first hit of the day, and the best part of the batting order is poised to follow.

But we go from high to low here—Morneau finishes his 0-fer afternoon with a strikeout. The fragility of the Twins batting order is on stark display, for unless Mauer and Morneau both hit, the team simply doesn’t tend to score.

Hope flares back up during Kubel’s at bat. Mauer steals second and advances to third on Kubel’s ground out. Hope always flickers lower when there are two out, and indeed, Cuddyer can only manage a fly out. The potential comeback remains an entirely theoretical possibility.

And it looks still less likely as the ninth begins on a Joe Crede strikeout by Indians reliever Kerry Wood. The score still stands at 7-3, and it’s very hard to rap out four runs with the leadoff man retired. Make it harder still now, as Delmon Young ends his day with a K. His at bat was tough to watch. He’d hit our big homer back in the second, remember, and after hitting a massive foul to right, he had only distance on his mind. He struck out swinging on one of Wood’s fool-you-twice pitches, and the Indians had one out to go.

There is hope, which should never be quenched, and there is suspense, which must yield to probability on such occasions. The Twins let all their chances run through their fingers and were left with only one last out.

And Nick Punto refused to make it. He worked a walk on eight pitches and stood on first, precisely 25% of what the Twins needed to cross home plate to keep the suspense going into extra innings.

Denard Span is nearly an ideal hitter for such conditions. He won’t strive for that illusory five-run homer; he simply looks for a way to get on base and ward off the two-out juju. While he put Wood through his paces, Punto took second on fielder’s indifference, and then Span hit his neatly placed single that ran true through to center. Punto scores, and the deficit is shaved to three runs.

Orlando Cabrera is up, and if Span is perfect for two-out conditions, Cabrera is nearly the opposite. He has just that bit of hot dog in him to fantasize being the game’s hero before his at bat is done. Span takes second on yet another outburst of defensive indifference. But true to form, Cabrera strikes out swinging, strikes out reaching and flailing for a pitch that will only come to him in the imaginary ninth inning, the one in which the dreamer wins an otherwise unwinnable game

That’s the kind of game in which suspense hovers over the field, shrouding two equally possible outcomes in mystery. But there wasn’t much mystery today, only the passage of time as the Indians stood pat on the lavish 6-run inning and the Twins let every opportunity they had dissipate.

I watched the entire game looking for the fog of suspense to break open into a little vista of Twins hitting. It was always possible. It didn’t happen, and a more dispassionate viewer would realize it really, really couldn’t. But I watched the game with my brother Scott and his partner Kathy, and all the while I coaxed them to hope alongside me. They cheered me up when the Twins kept up their litany of failure, and they distracted me when all looked particularly grim. By the way, Scott finished all the potato chips.