Tag Archives: Michael Cuddyer

[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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[games 147, 148] Don’t Forget the Dome

Michael Cuddyer was the human hero, but the Metrodome itself played role as the Twins started off a weekend series against the Tigers.

The stakes are plain, and the stakes are high: Detroit starts with a 4-game lead in the Central. The Twins have this homestand to gain some ground, and will later play four games in Detroit. Only 16 total games remain in the season.

If the Twins don’t start working on that deficit this weekend, they may never reduce it. And if the Tigers can’t protect it, well, they just might not deserve the division.

On Friday night, the Twins greeted the visitors with further signs that the Metrodome would never be hospitable to the Tigers. Brian Duensing pitched with grit for six-plus innings, limiting Detroit to four measly hits. He was never overpowering, but neither did the Tigers succeed in overpowering him. In a game that both teams wanted to use as a launching pad for a key weekend, Duensing did the talking.

Not that the Tigers starter, Rick Porcello, rolled over and played dead. He held the Twins to eight hits, but one of them came from Michael Cuddyer in the form of a two-run homer in the fourth.

The game was a tense, scoreless affair until Cuddyer lifted the ball high to left. When he tossed the bat aside to begin a hearty trot round the bases, the Dome was filled with cheers. As always, they echoed in that dank, Dome way, but tonight it felt like Cuddy was here to fulfill the sweetest possible destiny for us.

He’d not only been picking up the hitting slack but filling in at first after Justin Morneau’s season-ending back problem. But Cuddy doesn’t seem to have the weight of the world on his as he does this. Instead, there’s an even greater cheer about him. He let his homer sail off and bustled over the bases, in a hurry to get back to the dugout for another brutal round of high-fiving.

In the 3-0 win Friday, home field advantage took the form of loud and happy fans, and perhaps the Tigers’ ability to fear the worst in this cavernous, plastic dome-space. But on Saturday, the Dome would almost literally join the lineup.

Saturday afternoon, the Tigers had Justin Verlander on the mound, facing Carl Pavano. Verlander was every inch the ace, and the Tigers were ready to wipe last night’s 0-fer from memory. They scored in the first inning on a brisk little single from Miguel Cabrera. Take notice, Twins.

Indeed, the Twins heeded the threat and replied in the bottom of the first with a home run from Joe Mauer. Verlander was good, but not impregnable.

Pavano, however, was convincingly human. The Tigers moved men onto the bases every inning, and were content to play small ball. In the third, they went ahead 2-1 on a sharp RBI single from Aubrey Huff.

And 2-1 it stayed until the eighth. Verlander had filed that Mauer homer under fluke and gone on to pitch brilliantly. He started the eighth by striking out Nick Punto, then allowed a single to Denard Span.

The double play was on everyone’s mind, and it’s fair to say that the crowd had been lulled quiet by now. It looked like the Tigers were going to even the series. It looked like the typical win one-lose one Twins pace. Never enough to forge a winning streak, always enough to tag along.

Orlando Cabrera took control of his at-bat. He took some balls, and demanded Verlander give him something. He stood through a pickoff attempt, as if the Twins would let Gerald Laird further burnish his credentials—he’d already thrown out Span in a previous inning as well Carlos Gomez. And then Cabrera fouled off some pitches, still trying to steer the plate appearance toward some kind of success.

Finally, it was apparent Verlander had him. Cabrera skied the ball to left center, where defensive replacement Don Kelly was waiting. And waiting. Because Kelly never saw the ball trace its arc along the graying, mystifying roof. He just saw it bounce, three feet to his left.

Cabrera reached second on a pure Dome double. It was as if the ballpark wanted one last chance to be part of the game. This was a place, remember, once called the Homerdome, where reporters brought in sound equipment to compare the cheering volume to airplane takeoffs. It was a force unto itself, and this afternoon, it spoke again.

With Span on third and Cabrera on second, Tigers manager Jim Leyland called on Verlander to walk Mauer. Bases full, odds probably correctly played, but the Twins like to keep that left-handed heat on. Jason Kubel hit a simple single that scored two.

Verlander left for relief pitcher Brandon Lyon, who had the duty of facing ongoing sparkplug Cuddyer. Indeed, Cuddy stayed sparkling and homered to deep center. Three more runs, and the Twins turned a 2-1 Tigers lead into a 6-2 bulwark that wouldn’t even require Joe Nathan for protecting.

To win the first two games of the three-game series, and to win them using every man on the team and not a little of the stadium itself gave an entirely new set of hopes to the division challengers. Anything is possible now.

[game 136] Rundown

To brew up a classic pitcher’s duel, you need two hurlers at the top of their game, a reasonably generous umpire, and alert fielders.

Only the fielders did their part on Sunday afternoon’s game between the Twins and the Indians, but the game stayed hitless until the fourth, and scoreless until the fifth.

And no floodgates opened, even then. The Twins acquired one run, and scored first, and then the Indians tied it in the sixth and scored two more in the seventh to win 3-1.

David Huff started for Cleveland, and through seven innings had the distinction of throwing only slightly more strikes than balls while holding the Twins to two measly hits. The first of them was a double by Nick Punto that scooted obediently just fair of the first base bag, then dribbled up the line, allowing the hustling Punto to make second. Denard Span followed with an RBI single to center to put the Twins up 1-0.

The line score makes Huff look like a colossus, but the actual pitching component of his game was a good deal less impressive than the single earned run and two hits. Huff was never overpowering and in addition to the four walks he allowed, Twins hitters could have coaxed a few more with some effort, not to mention some hits.

All credit to David Huff, but it looked like the Twins had a collective batting lapse today. No one made good contact, it’s that simple, and when an entire lineup hits that anemically, you assume the pitcher is the reason why. But pitch by pitch, Huff was in the low 90s/high 80s with so-so control and no special zip or movement on his pitches.

I watched the game trying to look past the smoke and mirrors. Why was Huff baffling us? Well, sometimes a baseball game just bends one team’s way, and there may be no explaining it.

Meanwhile, Nick Blackburn was pitching with much better control and economy, and for the first five innings dispatched the Indians easily.

The home plate umpire was kind to neither pitcher. Pitches on the corners, particularly the inside to right handed hitters, weren’t getting called strikes no matter how picture perfect they looked in replay. Huff and Blackburn each managed a few strikeouts, but they felt like the results of lengthy petitions to the governor.

Blackburn was sharp, but in the sixth, Michael Brantley led off with a broken bat single. The ball left the bat weakly, but in a cascade of splinters that made its trajectory hard to read, and now the Twins’ 1-run lead looked tenuous. Blackburn had allowed only two prior hits, and was in serene control, but innings can break apart at the slightest touch.

Asdrubal Cabrera sacrificed Brantley over to second, and, as always, it was even odds that the gamble would pay off. The Indians gave up an out to a pitcher who seeks out double plays. But they also advanced their runner in the late innings while fighting a 1-run deficit.

Now we get a chance to see if Blackburn can stay tough. Because he pitches to contact, it takes little to pry a hit out of him. He has to stay true to his game and let hitters peck away, while trying to control what, exactly, they can do with the ball.

He faces Shin-Soo Choo, a lefty, and strikes him out. Blackburn still looks the master of the game, even if the umpire is allowing nearly nothing inside.

This sets the stage for the pressure of a two-out hit. The verdict on the sac grounder was still out: a single ties the game, but a ball any fielder can reach quickly ends the inning.

Jhonny Peralta, a good but not great contact hitter, raps a ground ball up the middle to score the runner. Sometimes baseball is that simple, and that sad.

Blackburn may be close to the unraveling point, where I’ve seen him flounder before. Travis Hafner whom he’s foiled all afternoon, now smacks a neat, sharp line drive to right center to put men on first and third.

Matt LaPorta, suffering from a hitting slump, can break the tie if he can defeat his hitting demons. Blackburn’s 89th pitch is a bloop to shallow center. Carlos Gomez sprints to run it down, and the inning is over. Tie game, preserved by Blackburn. Though he gave up a crucial run, he stayed steely to finish the inning and keep the Twins within reach.

The seventh inning will prove a worse test of fire. Luis Valbuena leads off with a single, and Andy Marte follows with a sacrifice to nudge him on to second. So far, it’s a carbon copy of last inning.

With two outs, Brantley is up again, and this rookie has been proving himself during his late season call-up. He hits a clutch single to right and what he does next is either a blunder or a stroke of genius. He starts running past first, and either he’s trying to draw a throw to improve Valbuena’s chances to cross the plate or he’s over-reached.

But the Twins allow the worst to happen. The run has long ago scored and Brantley’s in a rundown between Michael Cuddyer at first and Nick Punto at second. Cuddy has the ball and he knows Brantley’s fast so he’s got the ball in his bare hand, ready to make the throw to Punto.

But Brantley’s very fast, and the distance keep collapsing. Cuddyer now sees his only chance is hurling himself onto Brantley to apply the tag. And for a moment, it looks like he’s gotten the third out.

It would certainly look that way to the second base umpire, but for those of us watching from TV’s high home camera, the ball Cuddyer has dropped is all too awfully evident on the ground. It fell from his grasp as he dove trying to tag Brantley, and there’s no disguising it loose in the dirt once Cuddy stands up. Brantley is safe, and on second at that.

Give Brantley credit for a fighting as fiercely through a rundown as any eager rookie can. And give the Twins a demerit for blowing the out.

Almost every rundown I’ve seen is a variation on the walls closing in, with things looking progressively worse for the runner, who’s eventually overcome in what’s nearly a videogame snuff-out. But today I was reminded of how rapidly this play moves, and how unpredictable the baserunner can be. It’s two against one, sure, and the fielders have even more men backing them up, but the lone runner has the advantage of just plain making them get a little crazy out there.

Cuddyer held the ball too long, counting too much on the pure majesty of brandishing the thing against a helpless runner. But Brantley wasn’t cowed, and by extending the time of the play, he shortened the distance to the point Cuddyer flinched.

And there would be consequences. Jose Mijares is brought in to relieve Blackburn, and to face Cabrera. The Indians seem comfortable collecting two-out hits, for Cabrera knocks in the runner with a double.

It’s 3-1 Indians, and there it stays as the Twins fall to Tony Sipp in the eighth and Kerry Wood in the ninth. The Indians take the series two games to one, and suddenly the Twins’ second wind seems to have blown itself out.

We’re in that most familiar territory again—.500, with 68 wins and 68 losses. Hovering at this balancing point all season long is no longer a way of staying in contention. It’s a way of fading away.

[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 126] Walking Off

Armando Gabino had his first major league start for the Twins tonight, facing Brian Matusz, who has a mere five games under his belt. The raw beauty of something done for the first time made me hope Gabino would have a fairytale debut.

Because a win would come in handy here. The Twins have reeled off four straight victories, the third time they’ve managed this high watermark this season. But five? Five in a row? That might really mean that little signs we’ve been seeing are true portents.

Signs like Alexi Casilla nudging his batting average steadily upward, even as he’s constructing a highlight reel of great catches at second base. And Delmon Young starting to hit consistently, even if not deep.

Signs like Joe Mauer regaining that exciting power stroke of late, using some homers in his serious quest of the AL batting crown.

Signs like the whole lineup stringing together hits, and cashing them in for wins. The bullpen hanging tough and shouldering the load of a lot of innings. The starting pitchers having some good games, intermittent though they be.

It’s too soon to call these patterns, but it’s never too soon to hope for the winning streak that signals a real run at the division crown. The Twins don’t have to be too gaudy about it. We don’t need an odds-defying winning streak; we just need to chip along and get the wins to outweigh the losses.

A win tonight will tie the Twins with the White Sox for second place in the division standings, after their loss to Boston. Should Detroit lose to the Angels, the Twins and White Sox would be three games back.

So a win would mean something to the team, but probably even more to young Mr Gabino. He makes his way through the first inning with but a walk to blemish his brief record. But in the second, some nasty firsts accumulate.

His first hit allowed, to Matt Wieters, the switch-hitting catcher. And then, too quickly, three more hits to push three runs across the plate.

Gabino even has time for his first error. He let a runner advance on a throwing error, and later blundered a bit in the field by failing to get to first quickly enough to accept a throw. It was not going to be fairytale night.

Gabino had three separate mound visits from pitching coach Rick Anderson, catcher Joe Mauer, and second baseman Alexi Casilla. All are hoping to settle him down and come up with the magic words that reconnects Gabino with the sharp sinking action his fastball, we hear tell, had in the minors.

Alas, no. The chats don’t help, and the sometimes punchless Orioles lineup doesn’t help. In the third, Gabino has the classic major league trial—he loads the bases with a double and two walks.

Ron Gardenhire pulls him, and chapter one in his big league education is complete. Phil Humber has his share of trouble with the baserunners he inherits. He walks the first batter to hand the Orioles another run, but ends the inning with a strikeout.

The Twins had a sloppy game offensively as well. They couldn’t scratch a single run after loading the bases in the first, and squandered opportunities throughout the night.

They were playing from behind all through the game, but kept showing sparks. Denard Span hit a happy-making triple in the second to score two runs, and Morneau proved he’s shaken the inner ear infection by launching a solo homer.

Baltimore led 6-3 when the Twins came up for their half of the sixth. This is their magic inning, remember, when the runs just tumble out.

Delmon Young led off with a single, his third hit of the night. Carlos Gomez followed with a base hit of his own. Pause to savor this pattern: consecutive hits from the bottom third of the batting order. If the Twins can do this once or twice a game, they can hoist themselves above .500.

And tonight they keep the momentum going, with Alexi Casilla parking a double in the deep recesses of right field, scoring one. Brian Bass, the Orioles reliever, is perhaps the key ingredient in this pleasant stew. Matusz has finished his five innings and left with a three-run lead, but Bass will fail to collect a single out.

Bass walks in a run, and when the inning is over the Twins have tied the game.

Jesse Crain and Jose Mijares pitch with grit to keep the Orioles from messing with that tie. But the Twins can’t make use of a lead-off walk in the seventh, and then are silenced completely in the eighth by imposing reliever Kam Mickolio, who throws with the special fury of a man nearly as tall as Randy Johnson.

A tie is like a protective amulet for the home team, but eventually you have to step beyond the armor to try to win. In the bottom of the ninth, we have Mauer, Morneau, and Michael Cuddyer, the best part of the batting order. Let it be now.

But Mauer and Morneau both ground out, victims of Mickolio’s big pitches. Its’ down to Cuddyer to prolong this inning, and he is barely safe on a infield single.

Jason Kubel didn’t start tonight against the left-handed Matusz, but now he’s tapped for pinch hit duty. He has a long, arduous at bat, and extracts a walk from Mickolio, moving Cuddy to second.

Young is up, on a 3 for 4 night. Let’s be realistic: Kubel, Cuddyer, Morneau, and Mauer couldn’t get it done. There are two outs. This pitcher can throw strikes. There’s always another inning coming with this tie in place. You really think Young can get four hits in a game?

Well, yes he can and this one is a walk-off. Cuddyer whips around from second to home on a single that trickles into right, and soon Young is mobbed at first base as the Twins gain their fifth consecutive win and perch at .500. Cuddyer’s face is one broad grin, and the Twins seem to be up to something. At last.

[game 124] Offense & Defense

The Twins and Royals played two games of baseball today, and I’m not referring to a doubleheader. Through the first six innings, the game was about how far you could stretch a single run. And then it became a classic clobbering, with the Twins raining down hits to sweep the series and inch up to two games below .500.

Carl Pavano started for the Twins, and he had a textbook day, almost escaping with a shutout. He pitched seven innings and allowed only two runs, one in the sixth that tied the game, and one in the seventh that meant nearly nothing.

Steering the team through five and two-thirds innings with a 1-0 lead, he was careful without cringing. He challenged the Royals hitters, with an answer for most any trouble they could pose.

The Royals’ Brian Bannister was nearly as good, but not for quite as long. In the third, the Twins got a single run as Carlos Gomez scored on an error by Mark Teahen. But Bannister, victim of that lousy fielding error, stayed splendid until the seventh.

I’m sure he felt great coming to the mound to start that inning. The Royals had finally tied the game, and the tense battle might finally be tipping his way. But on the first pitch, Michael Cuddyer blasted a ball to left to nudge the Twins back into the lead.

When we try to imagine a pitcher’s psychology, we are only imposing our own ideas of what we’d feel up there. There’s no knowing if that leadoff homer rattled him, but there are some facts in the case. The Twins followed with two more hits and another run scored, and Bannister had thrown 102 pitches. Time for a reliever to restore order.

Kyle Farnsworth was selected for this duty. When last seen, Farnsworth was objecting mightily to manager Trey Hillman’s disinclination to keep him in a game. So we presume he’s back with something to prove.

But maybe Hillman had something to prove as well. Farnsworth inherited a man on first, but promptly allowed first pitch singles to Carlos Gomez and Alexi Casilla to load the bases. There were no outs, and Farnsworth had thrown only two pitches. If there are baseball dreams of World Series-winning hits, this would be a baseball nightmare. And Hillman left Farnsworth in the game.

Still, the Twins were only ahead by a manageable two runs. If Farnsworth can tidy things up, starting with Denard Span at the plate, the Royals can stay in the game.

Not if Span has anything to say about it. His triple clears the bases, and he gets to cross home plate himself on a sac fly from Orlando Cabrera. Cuddyer gets another at bat in the inning after Joe Mauer singles, and this time Cuddy crushes the ball past the shimmering fountains in Kaufman Stadium.

It’s an eight-run inning, and the close game has become a laugher. The Royals chalked up two more runs, but even the KC fans saw them as feeble efforts. The final score was 10-3, and the Twins have the lift of a three-game winning streak

I’ve seen many games that followed the pattern of the first six innings today, and others that resembled the exhilarating hitting in the final innings, but it’s rare that both extremes occur in a single afternoon. It made me wonder exactly why the defensive advantage in baseball can suddenly collapse.

Because, for the most part, all sports favor the defense, if only subtly. If they didn’t, offensive skills would be too coarse and common, and it would be too easy for one team with even a small edge to crush another. If you want to invent a sport, start with the how the defense can stymie the offense, and then wait for the great players to burst through those barriers.

For about a decade, offense in baseball was defined by home run hitting. Thanks to various drugs and the financial incentive for many players to use them, the defense couldn’t contain the hitters. Because the financial incentives remain as powerful as ever, we have to assume that drugs remain a part of the game, but perhaps they are a bit less common.

The game in which a batter faced nine fielders, including a cunning pitcher, evolved into the game in which a batter faced an outfield wall between 350 and 400 feet away. Just hitting the ball that far was the object, not threading it through the fielders, hitting a sacrifice fly, or figuring out what the pitcher was about to throw.

The Twins never played that type of baseball, though they now have four batters with over 20 home runs for the season, and in Justin Morneau a serious power hitter. But they play baseball within the walls more than beyond them. And a good defense can shut them down awfully well, because the batting order has numerous weak spots.

This afternoon, the Twins could only peck at Bannister for six full innings, but in the outburst of the seventh, they suddenly overmastered Bannister and Farnsworth’s every move. Was Bannister that tired and Farnsworth that off? Or did the Twins lineup come to life, all together and in especially glorious fashion?

I may be guilty of imposing a story on what I saw, but the fusillade of hits in the seventh showed me that the Twins batting order should not be written off. Seven batters hit successfully, one of them twice, and an eighth got a sac fly. There’s no great mystery to what makes a big inning: you get two hits for every out. And today, hitters weak and strong all did something to the ball in the seventh.

It’s impossible to find the seam between offense and defense. For the first two thirds of the game, the defense did what it’s supposed to, perhaps aided just a tad by a semi-generous strike zone. None of the hitters had much to say about it.

But when the game broke open, it probably took both weakness in the defense and strength in the offense to do it. I will venture one supposition. Baseball acquaints each player, on a minute by minute basis, with success and failure. It may take less for the brain to flood with temporary certainty about one side or the other of that equation than we think.

Perhaps Bannister hated that home run and couldn’t settle down after allowing it. And perhaps Farnsworth was stunned by two consecutive first pitch hits and couldn’t summon up a shred of confidence afterwards. Finally, perhaps every Twins hitter came to the plate with an equally inaccurate conviction, but this time it was the belief that hits were easily to be had.

No sports performance is simply self-confidence. But all the training and natural skill in the world can’t ignite without some of that belief, a far stronger tonic than the drugs that cheapened the homer into a boring currency. The subtle mental lever is much, much harder to push.