MINNEAPOLIS - How many huges hits and shocking double plays can teams withstand, how many times can a pennant be won and then lost in a single night, before a games stops being about a mere division championship and starts being about something more? There has to be a point somewhere along the line where the players realize that the game isn't about them, isn't about their teams, but about their sport as a whole.
After a 7-2 loss to Detroit on September 30, 2009, the Twins were trailing the Tigers by three games in the standings with only four games to play. On October 6, the two teams met in the Metrodome with identical 86-76 records, improbably tied after 162 games and needing an extra game to decide the AL Central championship.
That in itself would make a remarkable story. The Twins had been stalking the Tigers all season long, spending most of the year stuck between 2 and 5 games back of the division leaders. The deficit was as large as 7 games on September 6, after which the Twins put together an 18-8 stretch to force a tiebreaker game for the second straight season.
The extra game in 2008 didn't go too well for the Twins, as they fell 1-0 in Chicago. This year's game would be different, though; instead of being played in the unfriendly confines of U.S. Cellular Field, they'd be in the magical Metrodome, the garbage pit of a stadium where the Twins played improbably well. And it was the final regular-season game at the Dome, too, which meant that something strange was probably going to happen.
Well, there was nothing too strange. Just sublime.
It didn't start out that way for the Twins, as a Magglio Ordoñez rbi single was backed up by a Miguel Cabrera home run to give the Tigers a 3-0 lead in the third. Then the first bit of Metrodome Magic kicked in: Denard Span was picked off with two outs in the bottom of the third, but the throw was wild, allowing Matt Tolbert to score, making it 3-1. The game was quiet until the bottom of the sixth until Jason Kubel hit a rocket into the upper deck in right to cut it to 3-2.
And then ... well, baseball, at its absolute best, is entertaining because of the wide range of emotion. The nail biting and elevated heart rate during a tense late-inning at bat, the feeling of your heart in your throat as the opponent makes a play to put your team in a hole, the overwhelming joy as your team fights out of it. For pure drama, for the sheer range of emotions in such a short period of time, the final five innings of the 2009 regular season rank as high as any recent baseball history.
The Twins needed four pitchers to keep the Tigers off the board in the top of the seventh, and then the Magic came again. Orlando Cabrera, signed as a one-year stop-gap at shortstop, hit a first pitch fastball into the left field seats to put the Twins ahead 4-3. The Twins were only six outs away, the Dome was rocking, and the Tigers looked dead.
The Twins' lead lasted exactly two pitches in the top of the eighth, with Ordoñez going deep off Matt Guerrier to tie the game. Guerrier put two more runners on base before giving way to closer Joe Nathan, entering in a non-save situation to try to save the season. A popup and a strikeout ended the threat.
Detroit threatened again in the ninth, with the first two men reaching base. Nathan reached down for something extra to strike out Placido Polando on six pitches. Ordoñez was up again. Groans. On the second pitch, he hit a liner toward left. Gasps. But Cabrera's glove got in the way, and the seventh-inning hero caught the ball and fired to first in the same motion, doubling off an over-aggressive Curtis Granderson. Cheers. Exaltation.
League MVP Joe Mauer came to the plate with the winning run on second in the bottom of the ninth, but with first base open, there was a better chance of the Metrodome roof caving in than of Detroit pitching to him. First and second, two outs, and stepping to the plate was not Kubel, but defensive replacement Carlos Gomez. Groans. At least he made contact, but that grounder to short sent the game where it was destined to go all along: extra innings.
More drama in the 10th. It seemed like the Tigers were going down quietly, with a hit batter sandwiched between two relatively easy outs. But then the double down the line scored that forgotten hit batter, and Detroit had regained the lead. So that would be it, then. Detroit had the lead with their closer on the mound. Turn out the lights, and say thank you to the Dome for all the memories ... until Ryan Raburn lost Michael Cuddyer's liner in those very lights, turning the first out of the 10th into a triple. Metrodome Magic.
An out and a walk brought up Matt Tolbert, who had almost no business being on the roster, much less starting game 163 at third base. A single to center scored Cuddyer, sent Alexi Casilla to third, and got the Dome rocking again. Then Nick Punto, a "little pirhana" like Tolbert and Casilla hit a flyball to left. Medium-deep, but with Casilla's speed, that should have been the pennant. The cheers started as the catch was made and the throw came home, and ... wait, why did Casilla get such a bad jump? He was out by a mile - that never should have happened! Wait, oh, crap, he wasn't on third when the catch was made. That extra half-step he took to touch the base cost him.
So the 11th came and went without incident, with Twins fans spending the entire time thinking back to Casilla's baserunning blunder and thinking that was it. That was the chance. Hearts in throats time, especially when the Tigers loaded the bases in the 12th with one out. Who was pitching? Bobby Keppel? Who on earth is that. This was Detroit's chance, the pennant in their grasp. A slow hopper up the middle to Punto. Quick decision time - do you go to second to try for the double play? No, it's developing too slowly. His throw to the plate was impossibly difficult and improbably perfect. Two outs. Then Keppel struck out Laird. Now it was the Twins' pennant to lose.
Gomez up again in the 12th, the player gifted with incredible speed and not much else. His hitting was inconsistent on a good day, atrocious on many others. So of course he singled to left. Cuddyer moved him over on a ground out, and there it was. The division title standing on second base in the form of the fastest player on either team. Any hit to the outfield would score him. After an intentional walk, Casilla was up to bat. Poetic justice, as his baserunning error was the reason we were still here.
A hit to right, a crowd exploding, Gomez running faster than he had ever run before. One more moment of Metrodome Magic.