Missed opportunities and two superior starting performances are the story.
Who saw THAT coming from John Danks tonight? Not even White Sox fans in their right minds--on three days rest, throwing eight shutout innings and more than 100 pitches? If you'd guaranteed me that before the game I'd have laughed in your face. Whatever I thought would happen certainly didn't tonight, and the ultimate hero, without a doubt, was Danks. He had issues early on with finding the strike zone, but that was the case for both pitchers with a tight zone being called on both sides. Able to fight off some tough calls he fought through a trio of walks and what looked like a big double from Michael Cuddyer to lift Chicago to the division title.
On the other side of the rubber, Nick Blackburn pitched a great game, making one bad pitch to Jim Thome in the bottom of the seventh inning. His breaking ball was effective and kept his fastball and off-speed pitch working, and for six full innings he was able to combine some timely pitching with a little help from his defense in order to stymie an imposing White Sox lineup. Unfortunately, on a 2-2 count to Thome to lead off the Chicago seventh, he left a changeup high over the plate. Three pitches in a row Blackburn played with fire; number one Thome let go by for strike one, number two Thome cut on and missed, number three left U.S. Cellular via rocket over dead center field. It was a big mistake, thanks to a miserable showing by the offense.
For the fantastic game Danks had, the lineup had their opportunities. A number of them, as a matter of fact. Let's look at them now, just to torture ourselves:
Top of the 1st: Denard Span sees seven fastballs from Danks, who misses on the last three to give Span his first walk. Alexi Casilla, who also ony saw fastballs, smashes a laser to third baseman Juan "Tubs O' Lard" Uribe...who would have had to make more of an effort to push away a vat of mashed potatoes than he had to make to reach up and snag Casilla's smash. This is a big wasted opportunity, but can be chalked up to luck.
Top of the 3rd: Nick Punto sees ten pitches, fouls five of them off, before earning a free pass. Carlos Gomez pops out before Span grounds out to strand him. Although there was already one out when LNP took the free base, the bats weren't able to even move him up a bag. Blame is solely placed on the hitters.
Top of the 5th: Cuddyer, on the fifth pitch (see: fastball) from Danks, chucks the ball into left field for a leadoff double. Delmon Young does his job and advances Cuddles by launching a sac fly into deep center before The Game Defining Moment happened. Brendan Harris popped up to Ken Griffey Jr. in what could be called "shallow" center field. Scott Ullger decides Cuddyer needs to test The Kid's arm. While Griffey's relay wasn't particularly strong (it was accurate and up the line a bit to get A.J. Pierzynski in front of the plate), Cuddyer was still out by a couple of steps. Pierzynski, far from good form, stood on home plate and stretched to his left to grab Griffey's throw. Cuddyer barrelled into him right at that moment, not getting full contact on A.J.'s body but mostly his arm, and both men hit the dirt. Unfortunately, Pierzynski managed to hold onto the ball in spite of A) not getting himself in a good position to field the ball and B) Cuddyer running him over, and that was the last good scoring chance the Twins would see. Blame: Ullger.
Top of the 6th: With two outs, Span walks again. Clearly, this didn't work out, either. Blame: Statistical probability.
Top of the 8th: Harris singles into left field for the team's second hit of the night, but is immediately erased by a Punto inning-ending double play. Blame: Hitters.
Top of the 9th: Jason Kubel goes down on strikes to Bobby Jenks, but on a couple of those fastballs he just missed. He was right on top of that first 0-2 pitch in particular. You've heard that sports can be games of inches? Well, in this situation, a tie game might have been a much smaller difference.
This was a game that the Twins could have, and probably should have, won...but didn't. John Danks was the windshield, Minnesota's offense was the bug, and John Danks was also the windshield wipers smearing us across John Danks the windshield. John Danks was also driving, laughing maniacally while smoking a cigar and running over kittens. He was also talking on his cell phone and not wearing a seat belt. JOHN DANKS IS A MANIAC!
Also, he's a little lucky...not that it's of any consolation to us now. The man just kept pumping fastball after fastball over the plate, and in the later innings when he should have been getting gassed we handed him the axe by agreeing to the No Plate Appearances Longer Than Two Pitches rule...or at least it seemed like it. Check this out:
1st Inning: 16 fastballs
2nd Inning: 12 fastballs
3rd Inning: 19 fastballs, 3 changeups
4th Inning: 8 fastballs, 1 changeup
5th Inning: 11 fastballs, 2 changeups
6th Inning: 8 fastballs, 6 changeups, 1 curveball
7th Inning: 5 fastballs, 1 changeup
8th Inning: 6 fastballs, 4 changeups
I don't care if the pitcher throws 98 (and he didn't), a professional hitter should be able to catch up with a fastball. And do something with it. The fact that he was able to have this much success, on three days rest, without so much as pretending to throw anything else until the sixth inning, is mind boggling. I'm willing to give Danks his due credit for having a game plan and sticking to it (and destroying us with it), but it's embarassing. Because it means this is what happened:
After 15 pitches...
Joe Mauer: "He's thrown nothing but fastballs so far. I'm Joe Mauer. He won't throw me ano...." (Another fastball is on him again, and with no time to react Mauer swings and misses at what would have been ball four)
After 20 pitches...
Michael Cuddyer: "He's thrown nothing but fastballs so far. He's sure to throw something else right here. I'd better wait back a hair longer so I'm not too far out in front...oh, shit, there went another fastball. Well, he's sure to throw something else right here..."
After 25 pitches...
Delmon Young: "Nothing but fastballs so far. I bet he throws something else right here."
After 30 pitches...
Brendan Harris: "It's the third inning and he's still thrown nothing but fastballs. I'd better wait for him to throw something else..."
After 35 pitches...
Nick Punto: "He's bound to throw another fastball right here. I'll just let it go so that I don't look too eager." (Danks throws changeup) "WTF WAS THAT?!?!? NOW WHAT DO I DO?!?!"
At any rate, no matter how you slice it (or I slice it), the Twins were out-played. The result is a couch instead of a bench, an LCD or plasma television broadcasting green diamonds instead of the view from the dugout, and a slightly higher draft slot. There isn't much consolation to be had for the way the season finished.
But that's just my gut, first-instinct reaction. I know for a fact that by tomorrow afternoon I'll be proud of this team, because six months ago nobody in their right mind expected them to be here...not the least of which was me. Hell, I was hoping for third place.
Second place wasn't good enough for October this year. But it's nothing to be ashamed of. I'll see you tomorrow.