They saved their best for last. In what will go down as the best regular season game in Metrodome history, the Twins matched the Tigers hit for hit and play for play, eventually winning in the bottom of the 12th to claim the Central Division Championship.
The Twins became the first team in baseball history to win the pennant after being behind by three games with four games to play. Both teams stranded runners, had runners thrown out in razor close plays, and failed in key situations. On the flip side, both teams got outs when they really needed them, especially late. Both managers used their whole bench and their whole bullpens to punch and counter punch into the 12th inning. Finally, it was Alexi Casilla, who redeemed himself for a late break on a tag play in the bottom of the 10th, to hit the game winning single, scoring Carlos Gomez from second.
Neither player started the game--Gomez was a defensive substitution and Casilla was a pinch runner. Neither player played much down the stretch as both players were benched during the season. But their presence in the middle of the mob around home plate as the Twins celebrated their fifth division championship this decade is indicative of the Twins season. It took the entire team to win this division and it took the entire team to win this game.
The largest regular season crowd in Metrodome history screamed and waved their hankies, standing for most of the extra frames. In the end, they made the loudest noise I've ever heard on TV to cheer for the most improbable comeback in baseball history. Now the team is carrying that energy into the clubhouse, spraying champagne on their teammates and hooting and hollering.
Starters Scott Baker and Rick Porcello matched each other pitch for pitch through five innings. Actually, Porcello pitched better than Baker, striking out eight in his five innings of work. He used a different approach tonight. The sinker baller threw high fastballs, striking out hitter after hitter, including the American League Batting Champion on a check swing--his first check swing strikeout of the year. But eventually Porcello tired and the Twins got him for two runs, and forcing Jim Leyland to go to his bullpen earlier than he wanted.
Baker gave up three runs in the third, but held the Tigers right there into the seventh. Jon Rauch got him out of a jam, one of six relievers to strand runners late in the game to keep the Twins in it. Jose Mijares, Matt Guerrier, Joe Nathan, Jesse Crain and finally Bobby Keppel clawed their way through the late innings. Nathan got a big double play in his second inning of work with the winning run on third and Keppel stranded the bases loaded in the top of the 12th to get his first major league victory.
The Twins got homers from Jason Kubel and Orlando Cabrera, the latter gave the team a 4-3 lead going into the eight inning. But the Tigers came back to tie it on a homer by Maglio Ordonez. After the Ordonez homer, Ron Gardenhire brought in Nathan who got out of a jam in the eighth and into one in the ninth. But Ordonez lined into a double play to keep the game tied going into the bottom of the inning and send it into extras, where the intensity of the game seemed to dial up a notch in every inning.
The Tigers scored their fifth run in the top of the tenth off Jesse Crain. Aubrey Huff was brushed by a pitch and Brandon Inge lined a double to score pinch runner Don Kelly from first on a bang-bang play at home. But the Twins came back in the bottom of the inning. Michael Cuddyer hit what looked like a single that Ryan Raburn tried to make a circus catch on and it got by him all the way to the wall for a triple. After a ground out and a walk, Matt Tolbert hit a six hopper up the middle past Placido Polanco to score Cuddyer with the tying run.
In the top of the 12th, the Tigers loaded the bases against Bobby Keppel. Brandon Inge appeared to be hit by a pitch but was not awarded first by Plate Umpire Randy Marsh, who had a tough night behind the plate. Inge instead grounded into a 4-2 force at the plate to keep the game tied. Keppel got Gerald Laird to swing at a 3-2 slider at the shoe tops to preserve the tie and set up the 12th inning heroics.
Fernando Rodney, pitching in his fourth inning, allowed leadoff hitter Gomez to hit a single to left. Cuddyer moved him to second on a ground out. And then Leyland did the Twins a favor by intentionally walking Delmon Young to get to Alexi Casilla. Young had grounded out on the first pitch four times in the game, and Casilla was 3-6 off the tiring Rodney before rolling the first pitch into right field for the game and division winning hit.
Joe Nathan: Five of the toughest outs of the year.
Matt Tolbert: He keep battling and coming up big in key situations.
Orlando Cabrera: His 2-run dinger gave the Twins a momentary lead and put a charge into the Dome.
Joe Mauer: 2-4 with two walks and some huge plays behind the plate on balls in the dirt.
Nick Punto: He had two huge at bats and a heads-up play to home when the conventional play would have been to second in the twelfth to preserve the tie.
Randy Marsh: My brother Stu called me after the third inning complaining about the tight strike zone. Porcello got a lot of calls that Baker did not tonight, and that trend continued into the late innings, especially on the low strike. But Marsh was not kind to the Tigers either, missing the Inge HBP with the bases loaded in a tie game.
Delmon Young: When this guy stops swinging at the first pitch, he'll be pretty good.
Alexi Casilla: Casilla was down the line a couple of steps when Raburn caught what looked like the game winning sacrifice fly in the bottom of the 10th. Because of the late tag, he was thrown out at the plate by inches. If he's standing on the bag for the tag, he should have scored the winning run. Instead he hit the game winner in the bottom of the 12th.
Ryan Raburn: Rayburn played a single into a triple in the bottom of the tenth, allowing the tying run to eventually score. That same inning, he gunned down the winning run at the plate.