For Twins fans, this was the best game of the year. For White Sox fans, it might have been the worst game of the year. For baseball fans, this was just a spectacular showcase.
Tonight, Chicago played host to its first playoff game of the year. At least it felt like it, from start to finish. Early on, riding Konerko's 28th homer of the year and Radke's premature exit, it was all Sox. Minnesota's offense, from the M&M boys to the pirahnas, couldn't get it going against Javier Vasquez. For five innings the one time Expo ace kept the Twins' bats mute, and kept the volume cranked at US Cellular.
As much as you wanted to avoid thinking it was already over, it was difficult to believe otherwise. Sometimes, some nights, you just don't have it, and things definitely weren't going our way.
But, quietly, Matt Guerrier neutralized the Chicago offense for three innings; score held at 3-0. Then, in the top of the sixth inning, the Twins came to life. You can blame it on yet another now infamous implosion by Vasquez, or you can give credit to a tiny man who simply hit the ball off the sweet part of the bat, as part of a picture-perfect swing.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the rumors are true. Nick Punto went yard, for the first time in nearly 11 months. Punto's solo shot put Minnesota on the board.
Michael Cuddyer then singles, and Javier Vasquez is pulled. Justin Morneau then takes a Neal Cotts outside fastball and punches it to left field for a single. Up steps Torii Hunter.
He of the never-gets-it-done-when-it-counts ilk.
He of the rally-killing-double-play variety.
Hunter takes an inside-out swing at a pitch outside the outer half of the plate, and in the back of my mind I'm thinking he didn't get enough of it, yet I know for a FACT that I just saw the Torii Hunter home run bat-flip. Even as I think Jermaine Dye will cruise under the ball to retire Hunter, the producer in the FSN truck orders a camera change. Suddenly I see the number 23 in full on the back of a black jersey, tracking at half speed the trajectory of a ball over its head.
That one counts for three. Twins lead, 4-3.
Even though A.J. Pierzynski took Pat Neshek long distance on the first pitch of the bottom of the sixth, there was a sense that this game wasn't going to get away from the Twins. Hunter's homer energized the team, and you could see it in the way the Twins approached the rest of the game. Thanks to Torii and Nick, the Twins believed they could take the came from the White Sox.
In the top of the ninth, Jason Bartlett drove a ball up the middle for a single, scoring pinch-runner Lew Ford from second base for what would be the winning run. In the bottom of the ninth, Joe Nathan came on, and made things interesting. Rob Mackowiak struck out swinging to start the inning. Scott Podsednik then singled to Tyner in left, who had an outfield assist at the plate earlier in the game. Alex Cintron pinch-hit for Tadahito Iguchi, but struck out looking in a 9-pitch at-bat that saw Nathan's tight curve catch him with his pants down.
The final play of the game came against MVP candidate Jermaine Dye. Dye took a strike then swung through a pitch before Nathan induced a pop up behind first base toward foul territory. As Morneau tracked the ball to the fence and positioned himself for the catch, a pair of Chicago fans reached for the ball and, basically, just got themselves in the way. End result being, properly, fan interference...and the batter is out.
Ideally you want to see your team record the final out of its own volition, but the fact is that Morneau would have caught the ball anyway had the fans not interfered. Considering the pace of the game, and considering issues like this have caused major controversy in the past, it wasn't an end that matched the game that was played up to that point. It was anti-climactic. But, in the end, the Twins earned their win, and the interference had nothing to do with the outcome of the game.
Tonight ends with the Twins taking a 0.5 game lead in the Wild Card standings, and, improbably, somehow merely 4.5 games back of the uncatchable and unbeatable Detroit Tigers. Friends...this is a brand new season.
By the way, if you want to get a chuckle at how Chicago fans reacted to the game, check out the game threads over at South Side Sox. For those of you who get a little too emotional over the happenings of one inning, this should be an insight into your soul. For those of you who know people like this, and we all do, some of these things will sound all too familiar.
WHAT A FANTASTIC GAME.