It was a game worthy of its reward.
Two flawed teams squared off for the right to call themselves champion of a flawed division. But the result of that match-up, which played itself out over four hours and 37 minutes of equally excruciating and exhilarating baseball, was flawless.
A heavyweight bout that featured a little bit of everything, and never seemed to run out of roundhouses. A back-and-forth affair so emotionally draining, it left fans just as exhausted as the players.
Home runs were hit by sluggers like Miguel Cabrera and Jason Kubel, but this contest also featured a Bucky Dent moment, when Orlando Cabrera plopped a two-run homer into the first row of the left field seats in the seventh inning that provided the Twins with a short-lived, one-run lead that sent the largest regular-season crowd in Metrodome history into a frenzy.
So it began.
Career Twins-killer Magglio Ordonez laced a shot of his own to left to tie it leading off the eighth, and from that moment forward, the Twins found ways to get out of jams that James Bond couldn’t get out of.
With runners on the corners and nobody out in the ninth, Joe Nathan struck out Placido Polanco looking. Polanco is one of the toughest players in the game to K, yet Nathan’s breaking ball froze him. Then Maggs ripped into a ball that happened to travel directly at the OC, who quickly fired to Michael Cuddyer at first to double off Curtis Granderson, who had wandered just a step further off the bag then he should have.
The Tigers jumped back in front on a Brandon Inge double in the tenth, when just his tenth extra-base hit over the final 55 games of the season drove in a determined Don Kelly on a slide that just beat the relay and Mauer’s best effort to block the plate.
At that point, I texted a couple of friends to ask “Is there any Metrodome magic left?” One said yes.
She was right.
Michael Cuddyer, whose play since the loss of Justin Morneau has been borderline poetic, lofted a looper to shallow left that Ryan Rayburn dove for rather than letting bounce in front of him. The ball rolled all the way to the outfield wall, and Cuddyer sprinted with every ounce of effort in his body until he slid into third with a lead-off triple.
Matt Tolbert’s chopper found a way through the middle to tie it, and suddenly it was the Twins with runners on the corners and one out. Nick Punto had a fantastic at-bat that resulted in a line-shot to left that found Rayburn’s glove. Pinch-runner Alexi Casilla did not immediately retreat to third, so unable to get a good jump when he tagged, Casilla was subsequently cut down at the plate to end another incredible frame.
In the twelfth, a Kelly liner to left-center sent Miguel Cabrera racing toward third, but Delmon Young still threw the ball toward the hot corner, allowing Kelly to reach second with one out, effectively erasing the possibility of a double play. Ron Gardenhire, a manager who typically shows no emotion in the dugout, was clearly perplexed by the DY’s decision, or lack thereof.
After Gardenhire decided to walk Rayburn intentionally to load the bases, Bobby Keppel got Inge to bounce one weakly up the middle, which Punto fielded on the run and fired off-balance toward Mauer at the plate. Force out.
The ‘Dome’s decibel levels rose.
Keppel then faced off against Gerald Laird and fell behind 3-1. He came back to run the count full and when Laird swung through Keppel’s low fastball, allowing the Twins to elude certain death yet again, the ‘Dome was deafening. One couldn’t help but wonder if fate hadn’t predetermined the conclusion.
Baseball is a funny game. It almost always finds a way for players to redeem themselves, such as Rayburn’s misplay erased by his then game-saving throw, or Casilla failing to execute on the base paths but getting one more opportunity.
It’s also a game that has an uncanny ability to reconnect with the past, to somehow bring things full-circle.
A year ago, the Twins played the first of their tie-breakers on a frigid night at Comiskey. A heartbreaking, one-run loss in which Casilla found himself the final out of an amazing season.
Last night, in an individually disappointing season that has offered little playing time, Casilla bounced a ball through the right side that scored Carlos Gomez and gave Minnesota a 6-5 win and its fifth Central division title in eight years. The Twins bench emptied, running alongside Gomez as he blurred toward the plate. The Metrodome shook from an eruption of the Twins faithful who realized, once again, that the Teflon Confines would host more baseball.
It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while, baseball presents a game so indescribable that dictionaries offer no help. The words simply don’t exist. The greatest game I have ever seen took place in October, but it wasn’t a post-season game. Rather, game 163. A game so breathtaking, that when it comes to the playoffs, it may be all downhill from here.