Tag Archives: Minnesota Twins

Looking for a Turning Point: Twins @ Yankees

Among baseball matchups, Twins-Yankees contests have moved deep into hyperbolic territory. Obviously, they’re not keen regional rivals, but over the last decade these teams play to settle one single question: Under what planetary alignment could the Twins possibly beat the Yankees?

The Yankees win when it counts. In four Division Series against the New York, Minnesota’s record is 1-3 (2003), 1-3 (2004), 0-3 (2009), and 0-3 (2010). A decade of making noise in the AL Central, only to have the Yankees (and in 2002 and 2006, the Angels and As) shut you up.

The postseason deflatings have been gruesome, but they simply carry on the rich regular season tradition of pure Yankee dominance. Before the four-game series that started this Monday, the Twins had played 73 regular season games against the Yankees since 2002. The Twins have won 20 of them, a statistically distressing 27% success rate.

And it’s anomalous. In that same span, the Twins have suffered against the Blue Jays, but only to a 30-41 record. The Yankees have clobbered the Royals nearly as well—a 68% beatdown pace—but KC lost to everyone in that decade. Something just happens when hallowed pinstripe meets Midwestern pinstripe.

Add in the bonus oddity that Yankee Stadium, old or new, is especially well suited to the hitting skills of the Twins’ predominantly lefty lineup and you are left wondering why an interlocked N and Y have such a definitively mesmerizing effect on the Twins. They fare no better at home, whether in the Metrodome where they used to enjoy a decisive home field advantage against all teams not from the Bronx, or in new Target Field.

For a decade, the Twins’ sole project has been to offer themselves up for the Yankees to devour.

So when I settled in for this series, played in New York, I began with a simple, feeble hope: just win one of the four games to shake off at least a little of the feeling of doom. The Twins 2012 season is off to a predictably lousy start—2-7, dead last in the division, with the only bright spot confined to a Justin Morneau homer that might (might!) signal that his concussion symptoms have truly started to dissipate. The Yankees are 5-4, tied atop the AL East with Baltimore and Toronto.

Even staunch Twins fans can’t expect much from the team this year. They’ve brought in Josh Willingham to try to make up for the power lost with the exodus of Delmon Young, Jason Kubel, and Michael Cuddyer. The rotation is rickety, and now Scott Baker will be lost to Tommy John rehab for the year, leaving behind Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Jason Marquis, Nick Blackburn, and Anthony Swarzak. The Twins made a madcap, high-risk pick of closer free agent Joel Zumaya, who didn’t make it past spring training before suffering the type of injury that every other general manager in baseball adequately foresaw. Sift the roster however you like—there’s little there but some hope that Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau might hit a little and Danny Valencia can finally win manager Ron Gardenhire’s love with some handy hitting.

The Yankees, on the other hand, replace All-Star with All-Star whenever an injury or a more favorable pitching matchup requires. However, for all the glory in their stat lines, it’s important to note that it’s an aging hitting lineup: catcher Russell Martin is the youngest of the offense at 29. They’re tall, they’re trim, they’re well-conditioned and cared for, but trying to wring a little more out of Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones starts to look a little like a rich man’s a creepy kind of science experiment.

The pitching staff has a bloom of youth in Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova, but they’re joined by oldsters CC Sabathia, Freddy Garcia, and Hiroki Kuroda. Michael Pineda, hope of the future, is nursing his shoulder back to health. As reluctant as they are to shed any bit of the luster that was Yankee glory in the 90s, Jorge Posada has retired and Andy Pettitte is standing by in the minors, while Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter continue to merit spots on the roster.

Jeter is off to a hot start this season, his perfect career evolving into a perfect and long one. So, for game one, Carl Pavano versus Freddy Garcia, my lowered expectations were as follows: win one game of the four, and maybe get Derek Jeter out a couple times.

Yes, well, that will not be possible. The Twins start strong, scoring 2 in the first, but if you really want to feel gloomy, you can remind yourself that the Twins started with the lead for so many of the games they lost to the Yankees that it’s almost an eerie prediction of failure. Still, a double from Mauer and a single from Morneau, plus RBIs from Willingham and Doumit make it feel like the turning point might at last be at hand.

But in the bottom of the first, Jeter needs only two pitches from Pavano to find the one he’d like to launch to his right field homer zone. It’s the standard punch in the gut, but perhaps Pavano can reinflate himself? Not quickly enough. Curtis Granderson also likes the look of the second pitch he sees and whips his bat around to park it a little higher in the same right field porch.

Two lead off homers and this is starting to look like a classic Yankee massacre. Classic, as in Why did you bother to try to play against us? The frail little tie lasts a few minutes, but Mark Teixeira drives in Alex Rodriguez to make it 3-2. The entire universe settles: Yankees ahead, Twins paralyzed.

I could dream about a turning point, but there’s a grim sameness now. The good news is that Pavano regains every speck of his composure after that insta-collapse first inning. He becomes efficient, focused, and deals a few crisp strikeouts while leaning on a double play to solve the third.

Garcia, meanwhile, also got said mojo back and began dispatching Twins at a brisk clip until the fifth, when the Twins retook the lead on a double from Alexi Casilla, a single from Jamey Carroll, and a double from Mauer. It looked like more was building: with Mauer on second, up comes Willingham, the Twins best hitter at the moment. It’s an ideal scoring opportunity, but Willingham settles for a fly out.

The Yankees were done for the night; Pavano made it through seven without the slightest flashback to his first inning woes. But the Twins notched a few more runs, the most encouraging of which was Morneau’s lofty solo homer to deep center. Final score: 7-3. Essence of a turning point.

Tuesday’s game pits Liriano against Sabathia. Liriano has already had two miserable starts, but I’m not the only observer who can’t shake memories of the brilliance of his first full season, in 2006, when he went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA and an even 1.00 WHIP. There have been surgeries, injuries, lost seasons, stumbles, and just about every disappointment you can name, but the image of 2006 persists. I watch because there’s always this wild chance Liriano will bloom again.

Wait a minute—flowers don’t do that. Baseball is so good at lodging stories about players in our heads, but I’ve got to let the real evidence chip away at my idealized Dominican lefthander. Well, the Yankees are happy to slam me back to earth.

Liriano has a shaky first but escapes after allowing a double and a walk. The Twins score in the second, with Willingham keeping his 11-game hitting streak going with a homer off a pitch Sabathia hangs. It’s a puny lead, but I’m no longer willing to write it off as another Twins folly. Last night they not only held on, they got better as the game progressed.

But Liriano is not comfortable on the mound tonight. A feeling of pure Twins futility returns, and it’s such a familiar feeling. It’s clear Liriano no longer has the velocity, location, or the requisite pride in his calling. In fact, pitching may no longer be his calling. Time and injuries have turned a 95-mph fastball into a 91-mph not-fooling-anyone pitch. One only wants Liriano lifted as the hits and runs keep clunking over on the odometer. Rick Anderson sedately visits the mound with the same implacable expression—largely constructed from a motionless salt and pepper mustache—and Liriano stays in, not least because the Twins have little else in the bullpen to offer up to the hungry Yankees.

The Twins tick off two more runs, but the Yankees go on to take four more off Liriano, and three from Minnesota’s motley relief staff. Final score: 8-3 Yankees, and the turning point seems to have turned back to the inexorable Yankees.

Yet there is a bright spot. If Yankee mystique has overwhelmed the Twins for ten years, the new players in the lineup seem a tad less sensitive to the virus. There’s that little sleight of hand in a lineup like the Twins’, where low expectations allow for surprises. Tonight Clete Thomas, Jamey Carroll, and Alexi Casilla all get hits. These pale before the Yankees’ clobberings—only A-Rod goes hitless, while little-known backup catcher Chris Stewart has two hits and three RBI. The Yankees even win on unlikely sources of hits.

Sabathia has an OK night, with seven Ks and only four hits, though he does give up three earned runs. This is an improvement on his two previous outings this season, but it’s not easy to tell if his season will settle around his career averages or show some real decline. For now, the Yankees sleep calmly with the series split 1-1.

Game 3 features a pitching matchup that no fantasy team is sporting this season: Hideki Kuroda versus Jason Marquis. Kuroda has a rocky first inning, precisely in keeping with the tenor of this series. Denard Span leads off with a hit, Carroll follows right along with a single, and Mauer hits a sweet double to score two. Josh Willingham’s bullet to left is snared by Derek Jeter, but Justin Morneau hits his second happy homer of the series, deep to right center. The inning ends with Twins up 4-0—what better present for Jason Marquis in his Twins debut?

Well, it’s the first inning. It’s a bottomless pit for pitchers in this series, so Marquis proceeds to give up 3 runs and fidget with two on and one out. It looks like a pure and absolute collapse—30 pitches worth—when Alexi Casilla starts a double play that gets the Twins out with the lead intact.

Neither pitcher has much of a grip on things tonight. The big suspense is whether Marquis can survive the fifth inning. With the game at the halfway point and the Twins up 6-4 after a second homer from Morneau in the top of the inning, there’s still no sense yet that momentum has tipped Twinsward. Thanks to a double play that, honestly, appeared not quite swift enough to snare Cano at first, Marquis notches his 15 outs and is done for the night.

The seventh begins to look like more trouble. Jeter leads off with a single against Brian Duensing, who’s given up a leadoff hit in all three innings he’s pitched this season. The bullpen is warming up and the great weight of Yankee destiny is felt again. Teixeira rips one to left and it’s men on first and second, one out. Cano is up, and he’s already turned in an RBI double and solo homer tonight. The Twins slim edge here is the lefty-lefty matchup.

Cano hits a grounder to Casilla, but it becomes a fielder’s choice instead of a double play. Teixiera’s erased, Jeter’s swaying proudly at third, and Cano stands at first. Jared Burton comes in to face Nick Swisher.

If I’m so keen on turning points, I have one now. The series is even, the Twins are ahead in the game, and the Yankees are threatening. Put them away and the 2-run lead may stay safe for a victory. Crumple, and the whole series is lost.

Burton’s first two offerings are balls so far out of deception range they wouldn’t lure a child. I remain convinced this is the critical at-bat of the game, but it’s plainly not going to be one of those heroic showdowns of might against might. Swisher fouls one off. Burton produces a nifty changeup for a swinging strike and now I lean forward in anticipation. Something is materializing here.

Swisher fouls off another. It’s 2-2, 2 on, 2 out, with a 2-run lead—as twoish as it gets. Baseball often suspends itself on twos; three is always the final note, the last beat, the one you can almost hear before it falls.

Another foul back, another delay in reaching whatever conclusion this confrontation has to offer. It feels like the ninth inning to me.

Burton hurls a splitter and earns a swinging strike. That’s it!

If this is the turning point, if one could actually see a turning point as it happens, it has unspooled itself slowly over a long inning, with two pitchers struggling slowly. It will take time to prove whether anything turned or not, but I think I feel a few atoms realigning.

Matt Capps does the honors in the ninth. With one out, Jeter munches through 10 pitches to achieve his desired, god-like result: a solo homer that cuts the lead in two and opens the door for further Yankee settling of accounts. Capps dispatches Granderson and Teixeira, though, and the Twins lead the series 2-1. Final score: 7-6.

By game 4, irrational hopes sprout up. The Twins could take home quite a pretty scrapbook here if they pulled off a decisive 3-1 series win. It will be up to Anthony Swarzak, the best hope in the Twins’ depleted rotation, who faces Phil Hughes.

Once again, the first inning is a banquet. The Twins score 4, the Yankees 3. There’s something so prompt about these Yankee responses to an opponent’s runs—it feels like they’re staying on top of their e-mail. In this case, Granderson starts off with a home run, as if cluttering the bases with singles would just take too long. He has a whippy swing, and it looks almost like the bat head is spinning away from him, that he’s barely harnessing the centrifugal force as he lunges out to the ball. His homers are so brisk they feel inevitable.

The Twins try their own version of answering back in the second, and this time it’s Mauer, with one on, hitting the ball deep to left. This is the spot where he can hit opposite field homers; in his 2009 overachiever season, even Yankee Stadium wasn’t safe. This time, the ball lands in Ibanez’s glove with plenty of warning track to spare.

Mind you, the Twins are still ahead in the second, but now it’s time for Derek Jeter to flick his wand and send in the tying run. Then Granderson hits his second home run in a 40-minute span to push the Yankees ahead.

To unravel how they can make such things come true, we need to look at what constitutes the bottom of their order. Swarzak was not able to retire Eduardo Nunez, playing second base tonight to give Cano a DH turn. New York has strength wedged against strength.

By the fourth, the Yankees are in cruise control. The Twins have yanked Swarzak and are trying on Jeff Gray in middle relief. After one out, when Granderson steps up, it simply doesn’t seem necessary for him to keep hitting. But there is a tuning fork he can hear especially perfectly today—his swing is in some special Yankee ballpark harmony. Third home run of the night.

Phil Hughes never exactly overwhelms, but he keeps the Twins at bay. Hughes looks a bit like Beetle Bailey on the mound. His has is not pulled especially lower than other players’, but with his mouth always half open and the dark shadow of the hat bill making it impossible to read his eyes, there’s a regular schlub’s mild helplessness about him. But hapless GI or not, Hughes has turned the page from his first inning’s troubles.

Hughes even glides past the gnat-like irritation of stout Ryan Doumit getting his first Twins homer, with Morneau on base, bringing the score to 7-6 in the sixth. There it stays for Rivera to make it official with his darting cutter, retiring Carroll, Mauer, and Willingham—seven pitches, three outs, good night.

Splitting the series 2-2 constitutes an improvement for the Twins, but it’s no full bore turning point. And for the Twins to whip themselves into contention in the Central this season would require miracles outside my range of hope. It’s easier to cheer for the odd little accomplishment while understanding that no big dreams can be attached to this team.

The Yankees, meanwhile, impress well past mere payroll. I complain about them, groan about them, suffer their annihilating force—but I must concede their majesty. These guys are good. They’re making the most of a less than stellar rotation; they’re sending up a lineup organized around a sequence of strengths; they’re keeping players healthy. Heck, they’re fine-tuning Granderson’s swing to the point of a 3-for-5, 3 homer night.

There are times the Yankees look like a synthetic collection of talent—fantasy baseball run wild. But when you see them play the game, they do the little and large things, and they do them with each other. Hustling to make plays, advancing runners, keeping their heads in the game. Money makes them impregnable, but talent and desire make them win.

Charm Bracelet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten? Ten in a Row?!

So it’s going to be another grueling psychic bruising, is it? The Twins have a little postseason rut that grows deeper each time. They’ve faced the Yankees in four division series this decade, and bowed out meekly with a single win in the first two before offering themselves up to a sweep last time round.

Wait, it gets more gruesome: the Twins have lost ten straight playoff games to the Yankees, and in each one of them they had the early lead. Just as it played out tonight: a 3-0 edge against CC Sabathia disintegrated in the sixth and seventh innings. That lead had both hopeful flags flying for a while—defense and offense. Francisco Liriano masterfully held the Yankees in check, with all his pitches working, a few strikeout gems and 1-2-3 innings, and an especially gritty showing against Mark Texeira (fly out) and Alex Rodriguez (strikeout) with men on base. In turn, the Twins mustered trouble against Sabathia in most every inning. It wasn’t a slew of runs, but they were dispiriting ones: the last was on a passed ball with Orlando Hudson third, who scooted there during Texeira’s ragtag fielding of Joe Mauer’s groundout. It looked like we weren’t going to have another entry in the playoff Book of Doom.

But it’s still quite the bestseller when the Yankees are involved, and we had to scratch in yet another sad chapter. In the sixth, Liriano lost his way on the third trip through the Yankee batting order. The specifics include a nail-biting strikeout of Marcus Thames with two on (we exhale) and some more proof that the Yankees, yes, are that good. Jorge Posada, ahead in the count, deposits a fastball in that little infield slot toward right, the one you can use your bat to poke the ball into if you are an official Wily Veteran. Posada is an accomplished hitter—he knows how to get this particular hit, and with it he pushes the Yankees to within 1 run.

Curtis Granderson has had such trouble with lefties that he probably has founded a support group. I told myself that any lefty could get him out, and there might not be much difference between a manifestly tired Liriano and a fresh but less consistently reliable Jose Mijares.

But that’s why I’m not managing. Oh wait, Ron Gardenhire is, and he seems to have agreed with me. He left Liriano in and Granderson hit a miracle triple to center—a hit unlike any other I’d ever seen him wrench off a left-hander. The Yankees take the lead, 4-3.

It must officially be noted that Granderson is simply not capable of that hit under any conditions other than Postseason Yankee Victory Juggernaut Rules.

In the bottom of the inning, the Twins manage to tie it. But the seventh inning belongs to Mark Teixeira, whose two-run homer off Jesse Crain seemed to ooze Yankee mystique and entitlement. Yes, the Twins could not claw back, and all the happiness of starting this game off just right is lost.

The players, I suspect, don’t actually take it quite as hard as we fans do. Otherwise, how in the world would any of them crawl out of bed tomorrow? No, they must remain resilient, ready to spring right back as if nothing had happened. Because they’ve carried losses around all their lives. This is supposed to be one of the heartening, useful lessons of sport.

Still. How do you keep competing when it appears everything you have to offer is poured down into an abyss that will swallow the best you have? What does it take to keep trying?

Mariano Rivera curls himself down impossibly low, then rises up to whirl another cutter across the plate. Rivera is supposed to be mortal now, toward the end of his career, but the Twins can’t yet find the Deflate Mystique button.

Thursday night, another chance. Promise me this is not going to be a case of new ballpark, same old playoff result.

 

[ALDS game 2] Possibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[ALDS game 1] Playoff Chum

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

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

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

They. Can’t. Lose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[game 163] Tiebreaker

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

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

Alexi Casilla

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

Nick Punto

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

Justin Morneau

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

Scott Baker

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

Denard Span

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

Jason Kubel

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

Michael Cuddyer

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

Brendan Harris

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

Matt Tolbert

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

Joe Mauer

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

Jon Rauch

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

Jose Mijares

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

Orlando Cabrera

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

Matt Guerrier

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

Joe Nathan

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

Jesse Crain

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

Ron Mahay

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

Bobby Keppel

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

Carlos Gomez

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

Jose Morales

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

Delmon Young

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

Mike Redmond

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

Brian Duensing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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