Friday, August 19, 2011

2009 AL Central: A Drama in Five Acts

For all intents and purposes, the 2009 AL Central race began on October 1. It was on the morning of the last Thursday of the year when the Minnesota Twins woke up in Detroit to find themselves three games out with four to play. They had lost two of the first three games of this series, and a third loss would be the end of their season.

All season long, the Twins had been chasing the Tigers, never falling more than 7 games behind but seemingly never able to get close than 2 games back. In fact, before this final series against the Tigers began, the Twins had ended the day 2 games back of the Tigers for five straight days. After opening the series with a split in a double header, the streak reached six days, before the Tigers won 7-2 on September 30 to take a three game lead.

Facing elimination, the Twins beat the Tigers 8-3 in the final game of the series, then went home to face the last-place Royals for the final series of the season. Though they had won the game they needed to win in Detroit, they were still in a tough spot, needing to sweep the Royals and have the Tigers lose two of three at home against the White Sox.

The Twins did their part, sweeping the Royals out of the Metrodome, with the final game being a 13-4 thumping that allowed them to celebrate their final regular season game in the Metrodome in style. Meanwhile the Tigers, having lost their first two games against Chicago, found themselves needing to win their final game just to force a playoff. They took a 5-0 lead into the eighth, then almost coughed up the game before getting away with a 5-3 victory.

That meant a one-game tiebreaker for the Central division crown. The previous year, the Twins had lost a one-game playoff to the White Sox. After being forced to play that game on the road after losing a coin flip, the Twins were the beneficiaries of a rule saying tiebreaker games would be played at the team that won the regular season series. This gave them home-field advantage over the Tigers, and gave them one more game at home in the Dome.

The Game

Act I: Prologue
The first six innings of Game 163 were a microcosm of the season as a whole. The Tigers jumped out to a 3-0 lead with a three-run third inning, forcing the Twins to play catchup. They got their first run in the bottom of the third when Tiger starter Rick Porcello threw a pickoff attempt away, allowing Matt Tolbert to score. They added a second in the sixth with a Jason Kubel home run, a blast that knocked Porcello out of the game. Zach Miner replaced him and promptly loaded the bases, escaping the jam when Tolbert flied out to right.

Entering the seventh, the Twins took out starter Scott Baker who, rough third inning aside, had pitched quite well. They needed three relievers to get through the seventh, but they got through unscathed. The seventh inning stretch came with Detroit leading 3-2.

Act II: The Well-Traveled Shortstop
Orlando Cabrera had a history of showing up at exactly the right moment. In 2004, he was traded at the deadline to Boston, replacing longtime franchise stalwart Nomar Garciaparra. Cabrera ended up sparking the Red Sox to their first World Series title in 86 years. The next year, he was playing for the Angels, who won more than 100 games on their way to the AL West title. He stayed there until 2008, when he moved to Chicago just in time to join the White Sox on their division title run.

In 2009, Cabrera's luck seemed to run out, as he began the year playing for Oakland, who didn't end up making a postseason run. But he was again traded at the deadline, this time to Minnesota, where he helped solidify the shortstop position and provided a much-needed boost to the no. 2 hole in Minnesota's lineup.

That no. 2 spot in the lineup was due up third in the bottom of the seventh, and after Nick Punto led off the inning with a single, it became a key spot in the order. After a strikeout, Cabrera was up. He likely didn't hear the thousands of Minnesota fans yelling "come on, show us why we traded for you." Instead, he was probably realizing that Detroit didn't want to walk him, what with MVP Joe Mauer batting right behind him. He was thinking he'd get a first-pitch fastball. He got a first-pitch fastball. And he showed Minnesota why they traded for him, crushing the pitch into the left field seats. For the first time, the Twins had the lead.

Act III: Enter Gomez
After Cabrera's home run, the Twins did what they always did when they had the lead late in the game. They went to their strong bullpen, and they shored up their defense. The former was easy: Matt Guerrier, their typical 8th inning guy, was already in the game, so no move needed to be made there. The latter seemed easy, too: Carlos Gomez went into the game as a defensive replacement for Jason Kubel. Defensively, it was a very smart play, as Gomez could run circles around Kubel in the outfield. Offensively ... well, the Twins just had to hope Gomez didn't come up in a key spot. Yah, it was that bad.

It became even worse, too. The first batter Guerrier faced in the 8th was Magglio Ordoñez. Ordoñez had famously ended the 2006 ALCS with a home run, so he was no stranger to clutch hits. If you asked him, he'd probably rank that series-ending home run ahead of the home run he hit off Guerrier to tie Game 163, but it might be close. Wherever it ranked, the game was tied.

Not only was it tied, but the Twins had just taken out their second-best hitter for defensive purposes. Twins fans must have felt sick. Gomez was going to have to bat. It got worse, too. Guerrier got an out, then walked two batters, forcing the Twins to bring in closer Joe Nathan. He got the next two outs. But he was also the Twins best reliever, and he probably had only one more inning in him. Then what?

Enter the top of the ninth. Detroit gets two runners on base after two singles, one a bunt and one a liner to center field. Runners were on first and third, nobody out. So Nathan bared down. He struck out Polanco for the first out. Then came Ordoñez. He couldn't do it again, could he? The soft liner went straight to Cabrera at second. As he caught it, he saw that Curtis Granderson had, for some reason, strayed too far off first. Throw over. Double play. Bottom of the ninth.

Once again, Punto led off the inning by getting on base. Denard Span bunted him over. Cabrera grounded out. Then came Mauer. For a split second, the crowd was racious, until everybody realized that Mauer would be walked. The cheers turned to groans when everybody realized that the man in the on-deck circle was not Kubel, but Gomez. With the season on the line, he hit a weak grounder to short that turned into an easy force play. Of course he did. Extra innings.

Act IV: How Not to Win a Baseball Game
Lesson 1: Run out of relievers.

Nathan was used up, so the Twins had to turn to Jesse Crain for the 10th inning. A hit batter was followed by a two-out double. Detroit had the lead.

Lesson 2: Dive for a ball on a turf field.

Just three outs from a division title, Ryan Raburn made the cardinal sin an outfielder can make. His dive for a sinking line drive turned Cuddyer's leadoff single into a triple. Three batters later, Cuddyer was home with the tying run, and the Twins had runners on first and third.

Lesson 3: Forget how to tag up.

Alexi Casilla was the runner on third base, having entered as a pinch runner. He was a very fast runner, fast enough that it would only take a medium-deep flyball for him to score the division-winning run. Punto hit a medium-deep flyball to left. But when the ball was caught, Casilla hadn't retreated all the way to third. The one extra step he had to take to tag up cost him, as Rayburn gunned him down at the plate.

Nothing happened in the 11th. Take a breather.

Act V: Retribution
You play a 162 game season, at least half of them tense games because you're in a pennant race. Those games aren't enough, so you have to play a 163rd game. Nine innings aren't enough, and suddenly you're in do-or-die situation. Everything you played for comes down to one inning. The next time you win (or lose) an inning, the season's over.

And so with the bases loaded for the Tigers and only one out, on the mound stood an unfamiliar face for the Twins. There stood Bobby Keppel, 27 years old and on his third team in three years, a man whose 54 innings pitched that year more than doubled his previous career total. He was without a Major League win or a Major League save, yet there he was, on the mound in a do-or-die inning in a do-or-die game.

And there he was, throwing the pitch that drifted in on Brandon Inge and brushed his jersey. Inge flipped his bat, took a step toward first, then looked back at home plate umpire Randy Marsh, who, bless his heart, said, simply, "ball." He didn't see it. Replays showed it conclusively - it hit Inge's jersey - but Marsh missed it. Inge was still batting.

Then he hit a high chopper over the middle. Punto, the second baseman, cut off the ball before it reached the outfield, then, realizing he had no chance at a double play, spun and threw across his body toward home, just in time to get the out. It was a brilliant play, the play of the season, the kind of play you can't practice. But the Twins weren't out of the woods yet. Gerald Laird worked the count full, and then Keppel threw one in the dirt. But Laird, bless his heart, swung at it.

Keppel pumped his fist, then did so again for good measure. He walked off the mound, never to return. That 3-2 sinker that Laird swung over was the last pitch Keppel threw as a major leaguer.

And then came the bottom of the 12th. Gomez, who had failed when the game was on the line in the 9th, this time came through, sneaking one through the left side. Here was pure speed, the fastest player on either team standing on first base. He moved to second on a ground out, and then an intentional walk brought up Casilla.

Baseball has a funny way of choosing who gets to be the hero. Instead of one of the stars of either team, it was the weak-hitting Casilla at the plate, trying to drive in the inconsistent and underachieving Gomez from second. Casilla who had failed to score on a should-have-been sacrifice fly.

There would be no failure this time. Casilla grounded one through the right side, and Gomez did what Gomez does best: run. He rounded third, slid into home, and set off a manic celebration.

The Twins really had no chance against the Yankees. For one thing, they were a far inferior team. For another thing, they had to play in New York the day after their 12-inning marathon, so they were tired and a little hung over for Game 1. But it didn't matter. Their memorable win against Detroit in the final regular-season game in the Dome provided a season's worth of excitement.

The Rundown
What am I doing? Go here to find out. The list so far:

2. Minnesota 6, Detroit 5 (2009 AL Central tiebreaker)
3. Seattle 6, N.Y. Yankees 5 (1995 ALDS)
4. Colorado 9, San Diego 8 (2007 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
5. N.Y. Yankees 5, Boston 4 (1978 AL East tiebreaker)
6. San Francisco 6, Los Angeles 4 (1962 National League playoff)
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 American League tiebreaker)
31. Houston 7, Los Angeles 1 (1980 NL West tiebreaker)

No comments:

Post a Comment