Friday, July 29, 2011

2008 AL Central tiebreaker: 1,151 home runs

Neither team had really proved that they belonged here. The 2008 Twins were a team in transition, a team looking for leadership after losing Johan Santana and Torii Hunter from the previous season. They didn't have a true ace in the staff, had a revolving door at three of the four infield positions, and didn't have much power.

But they did have Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, a pair of past and future MVPs who provided the majority of the offensive attack. And while they didn't have a true ace in the starting staff, they had a bunch of young pitchers who were good enough, who could get them within striking distance.

The 2008 White Sox were as one-dimensional as they come. They led the American League in home runs, but were in the middle to near the bottom of the league in virtually every other stat. They sat around and waited for their bashers to hit a three-run home run.

The White Sox way shouldn't have worked, but it did, as they held first place through most of the summer. In August, the Twins closed the gap, and the two spent the rest of the season taking turns holding the top spot. They weren't strong teams, but they were in a weak division, so somebody had to win. Neither one was good enough to pull away from the other, so they played in a tight pennant race.

Entering the final weekend of the season, the Twins had a half-game lead over Chicago, on account of Chicago having had a game rained out earlier in the year. The Twins were hosting the last-place Royals for three games, while Chicago hosted the not-much-better Indians for three.

Fitting their status as merely above-average teams, neither the Sox nor the Twins could seal the deal. Both teams lost the first two games of their must-win series. On the final Sunday of the season, Minnesota beat Kansas City to clinch a tie for the title, then watched the scoreboard as Chicago beat Cleveland. That set up an unusual situation where Chicago had to play one extra game, a home game against Detroit, while the Twins sat at home waiting to see whether they would travel to their first postseason game or to Chicago for a tiebreaker game.

Entering the bottom of the sixth trailing 2-1, Chicago tied the game off Detroit, then saw Alexi Ramirez hit a grand slam to clinch the game. When his ball left the yard, the Twins started boarding their plane. The game was over by the time they landed.

The Game
It should be no surprise that on a team centered around the home run that two of the most prolific home run hitters of all time would be in the lineup. 37-year-old Jim Thome, he of the 539 career home runs, was in his third season as Chicago's DH, while 41-year-old Ken Griffey, Jr., with 611 career home runs, joined the team in July for the pennant chase.

With two future hall-of-famers in the lineup, there should have been no surprise that they would play a role in the outcome of the game. The first opportunity came in the top of the fifth, when Michael Cuddyer led off with a double for the Twins first hit of the game. Cuddyer moved to third on a flyout, then watched as Brendan Harris lifted a flyball right to Griffey in center field.

Now in past years, in Griffey's defensive prime, that would have been an automatic no-running situation. But Griffey was 41 now, his best years well behind him, and with how well John Danks had been pitching, there's no telling when the Twins would get another chance. So when Griffey caught the ball, Cuddyer took off. Griffey reached down to whatever he had left, turned back the clock, and fired a bullet to catcher A.J. Pierzynski to throw out Cuddyer and end the inning.

The Twins had to know, then, that that was the game. They weren't hitting Danks. And for all of Nick Blackburn's brilliant pitching, the added pressure of every inning was bound to get to him.

Enter Thome. Leading off the seventh, he worked a 2-2 count on Blackburn. Then he got a hold of one. And when Thome gets ahold of one, it's a beautiful thing, a high, towering blast, one that seems like it has a better chance of going into orbit than of landing somewhere in the stadium. His seventh inning home run was like that, landing beyond the bleachers in center field.

And that was it. The Twins were only down 1-0, but Danks was just too good, the Twins lineup too suspect. They got one more hit off him, in the eighth, but that runner was erased by a double play. Bobby Jenks came in to get the save in the ninth, and Chicago celebrated the division title.

Chicago had won three straight games against three different opponents on three straight days, a stretch during which even a single loss would have eliminated them. If anybody should have been ready for the postseason, it would have been them. But they ran into the surprising Tampa Bay Rays, a team with a pitching staff that knew how to keep the ball away from the meaty part of the White Sox bats, and Chicago fell in four games.

The Twins used their experience from 2008 and did pretty much the same thing in 2009, trailing most of the season before catching the Tigers on the final day of the season. This time, though, the playoff game was in the Dome, and the Twins beat the Tigers in a game that somehow was even better than this one.

The Rundown
7. Chicago 1, Minnesota 0 (2008 AL Central tiebreaker)
8. N.Y. Yankees 5, Boston 3 (1949 American League)
9. Arizona 2, St. Louis 1 (2001 NLDS)
10. Chicago 4, New York 2 (1908 National League makeup game)
11. Boston 12, Cleveland 8 (1999 ALDS)
12. Boston 5, Minnesota 3 (1967 American League)
13. Minnesota 5, Oakland 4 (2002 ALDS)
14. Boston 4, Oakland 3 (2003 ALDS)
15. Cleveland 4, N.Y. Yankees 3 (1997 ALDS)
16. L.A. Angels 5, N.Y. Yankees 3 (2005 ALDS)
17. Texas 5, Tampa Bay 1 (2010 ALDS)
18. San Francisco 3, Atlanta 1 (2002 NLDS)
19. N.Y. Yankees 5, Oakland 3 (2001 ALDS)
20. Seattle 3, Cleveland 1 (2001 ALDS)
21. Chicago 5, San Francisco 3 (1998 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
22. N.Y. Yankees 7, Oakland 5 (2000 ALDS)
23. Los Angeles 4, Houston 0 (1981 NL West Division Series)
24. Montreal 3, Philadelphia 0 (1981 NL East Division Series)
25. N.Y. Yankees 7, Milwaukee 3 (1981 AL East Division Series)
26. Seattle 9, California 1 (1995 AL West tiebreaker)
27. Chicago 5, Atlanta 1 (2003 NLDS)
28. Houston 12, Atlanta 3 (2004 NLDS)
29. N.Y. Mets 5, Cincinnati 0 (1999 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
30. Cleveland 8, Boston 3 (1948 AL tiebreaker)
31. Houston 7, Los Angeles 1 (1980 NL West tiebreaker)

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