Viewers of the ALDS Game 3 watching from home were subjected to a bombardment of ads for the new TNT show Men of a Certain Age. The comedy’s premise involves men in their forties coping with the realities (ear hair? Viagra? “going” problems?) of middle age. Undoubtedly, this title could apply to Mariano Rivera as well. Rivera, who is credited with being 39 years of age with the big birthday in November, apparently never got the message that life and your body is supposed to slow down as four decades tick away. Since turning 35, Rivera had worked 361.2 innings, struck out 358 and posted an ERA of 1.89 while saving 190 games.
Yet, there he was, bags accumulating under his eyes like Yankee championships he had helped cultivate in his 15 seasons in pinstripes, ready to terminate the Minnesota Twins 2009 season and with it, the lights of the Metrodome that glow upon the baseball field, once and for all.
But let’s come to one consensus about this: Mariano Rivera was not supposed to be here. No, he was supposed to be pitching in Angel Stadium or Comerica Park. Not the Metrodome. He was mentally prepared to face the Angels or the Tigers and ready to spend some quality October time in Southern California or Detroit. He certainly did not expect to be in Minneapolis, having the sub-40 degree wind slap him on the face on his way from MSP into the downtown luxury hotel. Nobody expected him to be here.
If we are being honest, let us admit that around September 6th, when the Twins were seven games behind in the AL Central with 26 to go, we all decided they were done. The local beat writers had already inked their offseason piece on how the team should approach Joe Mauer’s contract extension and called it a year. Columnists had transfixed their gaze on Brett Favre who galloped into town and mesmerized the media like a Tiger Beat heartthrob. For all intents and purposes, the team was declared dead.
You know that seen in Monty Python’s Holy Grail when the peasant attempts to pass off what he insists is a dead body to the body collector who ambles through a plague-stricken village calls for the remains of all the deceased? The peasant carts up a mangy looking excuse for a human being and demands that the body collector takes the pile on his cart. A voice cries from in the cart stating that he, the mangy pile, is in fact not dead. That he is very much alive and happy. And also wants to go for a walk. But for all of his persistence to the contrary, the peasant refused to accept the fact that the man was still alive. That was the Twins in 2009. Everybody assumed they were dead. The Twins, meanwhile, insistent that they weren’t.
From September 7th forward, the Twins had a creampuff schedule. With multiple series against the lowly Indians and even lowlier Royals on the horizon, followed by games against the pace car that has suddenly sputtered to a crawl, the Detroit Tigers, where the Twins could directly influence their situation. Which is precisely what they did: they won 18 of 26 games. The offense hit .297 with 26 home runs and averaged 5.73 runs per game. The pitching held a 3.90 ERA and limited opponents to 4.07 runs per game. This was not a terminal team, but a team on the brink of surging. Because of the mad dash to the finish line, it was the second time in as many years, an additional game to determine the winner of the AL Central would be needed. In game 163, the Twins and Tigers turned in an epic battle that was equal parts gut-wretchingly bad and good. Unbelievably, the team that was lacking 3/5th of their original starting rotation (Slowey, Perkins, Liriano), their All-Star first baseman (Morneau) and starting third baseman (Crede), had somehow captured the division.
Rested with as many hours of sleep as people have fingers on their hands (if you exclude the index, ring finger and thumb) – the Twins were tasked with the responsibility to topple a 103-win New York Yankees team. As the Yankees trotted out 19-game winner and former Cy Young winner in CC Sabathia, the Twins countered with Brian Duesning – a fresh-faced kid from Marysville, Kansas that had not pitched in double-decker stadiums prior to this year nor even stepped foot in the city of New York. Even before the first pitch the Twins’ starters’ neck was already sore from craning up to see the tall buildings. Not surprising, Sabathia systematically dismantled the drowsy Twins lineup that flailed at his slider and retreated to the dugout to catch some winks prior to the next half inning. Duesing last two innings before hitting the wall himself, allowing a Derek Jeter shot to tie the game at 2-2 before the billion dollar lineup rattled off five more unanswered runs.
By game two, the Twins had caught up on sleep. Even though Nick Blackburn’s mound opponent, AJ Burnett, was making $16 million more in 2009, he provided an identical performance, matching one-run ball with Blackburn for 5-plus innings. Burnett, however, would be rescued by a baserunning gaff by Carlos Gomez would ran past second to overzealously, fired two double-barrel shots into his foot and provided yet another example for the announcers to remind America how great Derek Jeter is when he called for the ball to tag out the tangled up Gomez before Delmon Young could cross the plate. As Burnett would be picked up by his teammates Blackburn, on the other hand, would be let down by closer Joe Nathan who failed to maintain the Twins’ two-run lead. Many will use umpire Phil Cuzzi’s miss call on Joe Mauer’s 10th inning ground-rule double as a scapegoat, but the Twins would leave 17 runners on base while cleanup hitter, Jason Kubel, would whiff four times in six at-bats.
Back on Sunday night, on the mound stood the slight, yet imposing, Rivera. In the eighth, Yankees manager Joe Girardi would summon Rivera to the mound to dispose of Joe Mauer, possibly the best the Twins had to offer. Rivera has cold, dead eyes that seem to capture the souls of all of his past victims. Since 1995, Rivera had collected a regular Hall of Fame list in the postseason alone – Ken Griffey Jr, Chipper Jones, Mike Piazza, Jason Giambi and so on. It seems to keep him young. After getting Mauer to spray the first offering, Jorge Posada set up low-and-inside, well off the plate, and called for another cut fastball that barrels into a left-handed hitter. Rivera eviscerated the batting champ’s lumber, sending sawmill shards every which direction and the ball dribbling up the line to the awaiting Mark Teixeira at first for the final out of the inning.
If nothing else, that moment alone symbolized everything that transpired between the two teams in the post-season: their best simply overpowered our best.