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October 7, 2009
Who Can Say No to Twins?
Sometimes, being both a fan and an analyst creates a conflict. For me, that has usually centered around my desire to be a credible writer and my lifelong love affair with the New York Yankees. This played out on these pages all through last year, the final season of the old Yankee Stadium, in moments such as the All-Star Game, where I wanted badly to cheer Mariano Rivera but couldn't because I was in the role of professional in that moment.
Last night, though, brought up a different kind of conflict, one related not to my love of the Yankees but to my love of baseball. The playoff game between the Twins and Tigers, won by the Twins in the 12th inning, was one of the most entertaining games of the year, and one of the most entertaining in memort when you consider the context. The game had all kinds of drama, some terrific plays, big performances, and enough twists and turns to keep you on the edge of your seat for hours. I had as much fun watching the game as I have watching any game on TV in a long time.
Yet… it was also a poorly-played game. There were mistakes in every single aspect of play, from baserunning to pitch selection to defense to managing to umpiring. Take away the uniforms, and you might have though you were watching the Royals and Indians battle for playoff position, or even a spring-training game in the waning days of camp. The caliber of play was so bad that it was hard to believe that the winner of this game was going to be crowned champion of anything. It was entertaining baseball, but it was not impressive baseball.
I want to write about how much fun it was to watch the game, because it was a great fan experience, but I feel like that doesn't tell the whole story. I want to write about how badly the game was played, managed, and umpired, but I feel like that comes off as curmudgeonly. Both storylines, however, run through the game, and both run true. A race that featured not so much good baseball as entertaining baseball ended in a game that reflected exactly that quality.
It's appropriate that I want to take two angles on this game, because so did many of the players. This game was long enough for any number of people to be both a hero and a goat, sometimes in the same inning, sometimes hours apart. Alexi Casilla, the failed second-base prospect who bounced a single to the left of the shifted Placido Polanco and Clete Thomas to drive in the winning run in the 12th; in doing so, he redeemed a brutal decision in the 10th inning. Pinch-running as the potentially winning run, Casilla was on third when Nick Punto roped a line drive to left. The shot might have been a hit in another circumstance, but the drawn-in Ryan Raburn stabbed it and fired home. Casilla, whose speed should have made for a successful trip home, misread the ball and the play, tagged up late and was called out at the plate, extending the game. (I thought he touched the plate with his right hand prior to being tagged, but there was not agreement on this point.) No one is going to remember Casilla's "U Can't Touch This" dance off of third base, however; they'll remember the three-hopper to right field and the bedlam it caused.
Casilla's hesitation saved Ryan Raburn, who had set up the situation with a misplay to start the 10th. With the Tigers holding a one-run lead, Michael Cuddyer hit a sinking line drive to left. Raburn elected to dive for the ball, and when he missed, it rolled to the wall for a triple. Cuddyer would score on Matt Tolbert's single two batters later. There are two elements here: the decision and the execution. The execution seemed to go bad when Raburn lost the ball as he went into his slide. He actually had caught up to it-the ball flew past his glove, not under it-but he didn't see it. The real mistake was the decision to dive. You're protecting a one-run lead against a team that needs three hits to score; there's no reason to risk giving them extra bases and make their job that much easier. Raburn's decision to dive was the wrong one, and arguably cost the Tigers the game.
It's appropriate that Miguel Cabrera, the subject of so much attention in the days leading up to the game, would both help and hurt the cause. Cabrera's two-run homer in the third inning looked for a while like it would be the division-winning blow, but Jim Leyland used pitchers other than Rick Porcello and Justin Verlander, and hilarity ensued. With the game tied in the 11th inning, Cabrera drew a one-out walk and lumbered to third on Don Kelly's single. After an intentional walk to load the bases, Brandon Inge chopped a ball up the middle that left Nick Punto with just one play-coming home for the force. Cabrera is no speedster, but the ball was hit high enough that any runner had a reasonable chance to score. Cabrera, however, looked back at Punto not once but twice instead of charging home. With a force in play, Cabrera has exactly one job: to run. He doesn't need to see anything but the initial bounce of the ball to make his decision. His hesitation was costly, as he wasn't out by much, and the inning ended with the next batter.
Inge failed to come up with a hit in that spot, one of many spots over the last few weeks in which I think Jim Leyland should have sent up a pinch-hitter for his third baseman. Inge hit .230 this year, is a .236 career batter, and his next .315 OBP on a full season will be his first in a while. His lousy 2009 line is being carried by his first four weeks-he's hitting .215 since May 3, and .186/.260/.281 since the All-Star break. Inge failed in the eighth with two on and one out, and he failed in the 12th, and he's been failing for some time. In between those two plate appearances, though, Inge very nearly put the Tigers into the playoffs, roping a two-out double in the 10th that scored Don Kelly with the go-ahead run. Inge also made some very strong defensive plays in the game, and had home-plate umpire Randy Marsh correctly called a hit-by-pitch on Inge in the 12th-the ball brushed his jersey, just barely hitting him, but by rule hitting him-Inge might well have been a hero.
As is so often the case these days, you cannot write about a big baseball game without using an umpire's name. Marsh blew that call, which would have given the Tigers a lead. He just missed it, and the ridiculous justification offered by the announcers for it, "letting the batter decide the game," was embarrassing. Eventually, you have to publicly shame umpires for their incompetence, or they'll go on being incompetent. Marsh also made an ungodly bad call on a 2-2 pitch to Placido Polanco in the ninth inning, getting fooled by a breaking ball and giving Joe Nathan a key third strike. We can argue about whether he missed the play at the plate on Casilla as well, but the Inge and Polanco calls were more than enough bad to make Marsh the game's goat. I fear we're in for yet another month of fail from the arbiters.
Jim Leyland had a bad game as well. He repeatedly let bad hitters bat in high-leverage situations, costing himself opportunities to put the game away. Aubrey Huff and Clete Thomas should have been used against Joe Nathan in the eighth, and arguably against Jesse Crain in the 10th. Brandon Inge is bad, results aside, and Gerald Laird is worse. Leyland may have lifted Rick Porcello too soon, after the right-hander issued a homer and a walk with two outs in the sixth. Porcello had thrown just 92 pitches and was in complete control through the first 86. Not allowing him to face Delmon Young, who he'd handled, set the events in motion that may have cost him the game. Leyland needed more outs from his starter.
Leyland then became passive, riding Zach Miner through the top of the Twins lineup with a one-run lead in the seventh. With three lefties in four batters, Fu-Te Ni was called for. Miner just isn't a very good pitcher, and even granting the platoon issue, Ni would have been a better choice to face Orlando Cabrera. After Cabrera's homer, Leyland inexplicably let Miner face Joe Mauer, who singled, then used Ni to get Kubel before immediately replacing him. The sequence from Delmon Young in the sixth through Jason Kubel in the seventh is where Leyland lost the game: he took out a starter who was a better pitcher, even at 92 pitches, than the reliever he brought in; had his fourth-best reliever protecting a one-run lead; wasted a key resource to get just one out when he should have pitched to at least four batters, and turned the game into exactly what he didn't need: a battle of bullpens.
As Kevin Goldstein repeatedly pointed out, Leyland had an out. Having started Sunday, Justin Verlander probably could have given the Tigers an inning, maybe even two. There were countless opportunities to use Verlander, from where Zach Miner entered, or protecting a tie in the ninth, or a lead in the tenth, or instead of maxing out Fernando Rodney in the 12th. A do-or-die game requires a do-or-die approach, and Leyland didn't pull out all the stops. There's no guarantee any or all of these decisions, if different, would have put the Tigers into the Division Series, but collectively, they made the task harder.
So the Metrodome gets another baseball game, and that's a good thing. While a difficult place to play, and far from a classic setting for baseball, the Metrodome has been a unique and entertaining baseball environment. It provides a true home-field advantage for the Twins, and the raucous, towel-waving crowds have always made big games in the tent feel like big games. I don't know that yesterday's game would have felt the same at Comerica Park, and I certainly don't think it will be the same at Target Field. So when the Twins take on the Yankees Sunday, make sure to watch, because we're losing one of the last truly unique baseball environments around.