Ron Gardenhire had run through relievers like a cold victim runs through Kleenex. A comparison fitting in the context of the dreary exterior weather. Inside the bubble, Twins fans were hoarse, jittery and alternating between waves of ecstasy and anxiety.
Either way, they were on their feet for a third extra inning of tiebreaking baseball. The Twins manager used three pitchers to deliver a 1-2-3 inning in the 11th, the first of such since the Twins went down in order in the eighth. Some might argue over-management, but with Tigers center fielder Curtis Granderson scheduled to hit second – a man that had hit 86 of his career 102 home runs off of right-handed pitching while striking out in a quarter of his plate appearances against left-handed pitching – it was a sage decision to remove Jesse Crain for LOOGY Ron Mahay.
In many ways, Mahay is Granderson’s pitching counterpart. Just as Granderson is only useful against righties, Mahay preferred to victimize his left-handed comrades. While in Kansas City, Mahay demonstrated that coaxing outs from right-handed batters wasn’t one of his stronger skills. In fact, as a demographic, those righties had slugged .608 off of him. Lefties meanwhile were stifled by his fastball-slider combo, striking out in 20 percent of all match-ups. Like many specialist pitchers, you have to employ their use carefully. The Royals, an organization that has made heaps of bad decisions, frequently used Mahay against righties – nearly 60 percent of batters he faced where of the right-handed variety. The Twins, on the other hand, recognized the value of his platoon advantaged and squared him off against lefties in 27 of the 39 batters faced since being acquired. Not surprisingly, his batting average allowed dropped from .313 while toiling away in Missouri to .206 while in Minnesota. As if it were already preordained simply by the percentages, Mahay struck out Granderson thus concluding his job for the night.
Gardenhire trotted out quickly to the mound to remove Mahay and signaled for his eighth reliever of the night. Gardy called upon his last right-handed reliever, Bobby Keppel, who disposed of Placido Polanco on a 1-2 pitch that he laced to the waiting Nick Punto on a line. The game stayed knotted at five as the Twins followed suit by going down in order during their home-half hacks.
As the game bled into its fourth hour of play, fans were continually re-energized by potential Twins rallies and squelched Tigers opportunities. High-fives were exchanged over several rows to random strangers bonded together by unfolding events. Hankies whipped around causing blizzard conditions in the stands. Bathroom runs were made out of kidney-saving necessity (although the numerous pitching changes provided ample cushion to relieve one’s self as well). If the Dome’s 54,000 patrons had anything to do about it, the Tigers were not going to march out of here with a victory.
All that was left was Bobby Keppel. The game hinged on Bobby Freakin Keppel. The same Bobby Keppel who had allowed 5 runs on 12 hits in his past six outings. The same Bobby Keppel who had not sniffed a high leverage situation since September 9th in Toronto. That Bobby Keppel. Bobby FREAKING Keppel. He was the Twins’ Coast Guard, the last line of defense in the 2009 season, and like the Coast Guard, you certainly did not want him to be facing the heavy artillery. Every one with access to a scorecard knew the task at hand. Two late inning replacements sandwiching the powerful Miguel Cabrera.
In the bottom of the 11th, Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland removed Magglio Ordonez, who had been hitting .439/.486/.571 the final two months of the season and had punctuated this resurgence by slamming a go-ahead home run off of Matt Guerrier several innings prior, from right field. In his place, Leyland dispatched Clete Thomas as a defensive replacement to help the Tigers retain the one-run lead. Thomas was certifiably better with the glove than Ordonez but hollowed at the plate by comparison. Obviously Leyland did not anticipate a scenario where left fielder Ryan Raburn would misplay Michael Cuddyer’s single into a triple, one more assistance from the Dome Gods. "Typical Metrodome ball," Raburn would later comment. "I was right on it until it went in the lights. I just kept hoping it'd come out, and it never did.”
Nor did Leyland expect that Matt Tolbert’s bounding groundball – one that would have made a nice tailor-made doubleplay had it been several millimeters to the right – slip through the middle infield. Had he had any intuition that the Tigers would forfeit the lead for the second time he would have left Ordonez in. Instead, it would be Thomas to open up the 12th inning against Keppel. Thomas sent a rocket out on a line to Carlos Gomez, another defensive replacement for a superior hitter, that Gomez snared. One out.
In the midst of the Tigers’ epic collapse, Miguel Cabrera had turned in what could be construed as his worst month of the year, acting as the rallying point for all of Motown’s woes. His 865 OPS in September/October was his lowest to date in spite of negotiating 22 walks (seven of which were intentional) and he was on a 0-for-14 streak prior to Tuesday’s game. While the rest of the AL pitched to the big righty gingerly or not at all, the Twins game plan was to face him head-on. That decision received mixed results. In his first at-bat, he laced a double to left-center. With a showering chant of “AL-CO-HOL-IC” filling the Dome in the top of the 3rd, Cabrera had sent a moon shot to the left of the baggy to put the Tigers up three-nothing. In his next couple of at-bats, Cabrera hit sharp groundballs that were turned over for outs. Keppel, however, worked too delicately to Cabrera and allowed him a free pass of first base.
The ubiquitously named Don Kelly, perhaps more suitable for a used tire salesman rather than a baseball hero, drove Keppel’s third pitch into the left center field area where Delmon Young cut it off. Cabrera boisterously took towards third base and drew the throw from Young. As the throw overshot Orlando Cabrera manning the cut off, Kelly alertly advanced to second. With the potent bat of Ryan Raburn (.378 wOBA) due up looking to atone for his 10th inning defensive sins, the Twins opted to put him on first to fill the bases to face Brandon Inge instead.
True, Inge’s season was derailed by injuries and had hit just .188/.250/.299 since August 6th, but it was also Inge who had pissed on a Jesse Crain offering into the left field corner to score the pinch running Don Kelly two innings prior. Now he had the opportunity to regain the lead with the bases loaded and just one out. Inge and his floppy jersey took a Keppel pitch inside, one that he insists and TV replays showed, grazed his jersey. Rather than push Cabrera home with the go-ahead run, umpire Randy Marsh said it got past Inge without making contact. “It definitely hit my jersey,” Inge said after the game, “It’s human error. Everyone makes mistakes.”
That human error resulted in Inge several pitches later bounding a ball towards the middle of the infield – certainly not hit hard enough to inspire confidence that the Twins could turn two. Twins’ fans favorite pariah, Nick Punto, fielded the ball cleanly and spun a throw towards home for the force. If the throw were a little up the line, in the dirt or over Joe Mauer’s head, the score might have changed. If Cabrera were Kelly or Raburn or Granderson or anyone else with an ounce of speed, the score might have changed. Punto bullet was true and nestled into the catcher’s glove ahead of Cabrera to get the inning’s second out. The crowd let out shrieks of excitement. The roar increased. Fans ignored their seats and stood at attention all the way around the stadium. One more.
Keppel had to navigate around catcher Gerald Laird. As a hitter, Laird was anemic (.287 wOBA) and like all of his other teammates, Laird was putrid in the season’s last month, hitting .227/.310/.273. Keppel started him with a slider for a ball, the spotted him a second ball with a sinker in the dirt. At 2-0, Keppel fired a 92-mph called strike but then came back with a third ball that was well off the plate. The Metrodome crowd pleaded for Marsh to open up his strike zone however Keppel’s command did little push the official in his favor has he was all around the strike zone. At 3-1, with no where to put Laird, Keppel got Laird to foul of a pitch to bring it to a full count. On the payoff pitch, Keppel released a 94-mph sinker that darted quickly below the strike zone, if Laird had the wherewithal/cojones to hold his swing, it would be ball four and Laird would be on first. Laird could not. As he swung over the sixth pitch, the Dome erupted. The Twins had somehow wiggled out of a no-out, runners on second and third proposition unscathed.