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It’s been a long, hard slog from their 17-24 start, but as of this morning, the Minnesota Twins have the third-best record in the American League and a tenuous grip on the AL’s wild-card slot. They won two out of three this week in Detroit, the two wins coming in taut one-run games that went down to the final batter.

If the Twins manage to hold off the White Sox and Red Sox and reach the postseason, all three teams will likely look back at August 9 with either fondness or frustration, because all three played one-run games that could have gone either way. The White Sox, in particular, have to be frustrated. While last night’s game looks like a blowout that got close late, they actually might very well have won it going way with some better decisions.

Cut to the bottom of the seventh inning. The Sox, no-hit for six innings and trailing 7-0 just minutes ago, have scored twice, knocked out Randy Johnson and loaded the bases with no one out against Ron Villone. Villone had walked his first batter, Joe Crede, on five pitches and started A.J. Pierzynski out with a 2-1 count. That’s six balls in eight pitches (and even the strike to Pierzynski was a foul ball that may or may not have been in the zone). The crowd was back into the game, the Yankees looked like they were in as much trouble as a team up five runs could be, and the only question seemed to be how many more runs would the Sox score.

That’s when the guys in black and white threw one very big life preserver into the water. Pierzynski hacked at ball three, a fastball up and in that was closer to hitting him than to being hittable. The resulting soft pop-up advanced no one. Up stepped Alex Cintron, who immediately got ahead of Villone 1-0, and just as immediately flailed at a change-up on the outside corner, producing another pop-up that scored no one. Brian Anderson, having watched Villone fall behind every batter he’d faced, then swing at the first pitch

In four pitches, the White Sox had gone from control of the game to out of the inning, from bases loaded, no outs, good count to a commercial break. You could read everything Bill James had ever written, every Baseball Prospectus annual and article, and the collected works of Rob Neyer, and never get as clear a picture of the value of plate discipline-and the damage the lack of it can cause-than you would from watching those four pitches on a warm Chicago night.

The Sox would pick up four runs in the eighth, and even get the tying run to third base in the ninth, but they lost this game in the seventh, when they had the Yankees on the ropes and just gave the situation away. If they fall one game short of the postseason, which is a reasonable possibility, the seventh inning of last night’s game will be at the top of the list of “could’ve been”s.

The Red Sox didn’t blow their game in such an obvious manner, but their loss-to the lowly Kansas City Royals-was just as painful. The Sox took a 4-0 lead in the fourth inning behind Josh Beckett, only to see Beckett give up three runs in the bottom of the fourth. The Sox then got shut out over the remaining five innings by Mark Redman, Todd Wellemeyer and Scott Dohmann, leaving seven runners on, hitting into double plays in two bases-loaded, one-out situations and losing one runner to a caught stealing.

Because the Royals were even worse about getting baserunners home, the Sox had that same 4-3 lead heading into the bottom of the ninth, with Jonathan Papelbon and his two-digit ERA on the mound. Papelbon, however, didn’t miss bats with the frequency that he had all season long, and it cost him. He got two strikes on Esteban German before giving up a monster triple into the right-center gap. He struck out Joey Gathright (boy, was I wrong about that guy) on eight pitches, but then allowed a sacrifice fly to David DeJesus to tie the game. He might have escaped, but once again he couldn’t put a hitter away, allowing an 0-2 double to Mark Grudzielanek. Mike Sweeney and his fork then lined a first-pitch, game-winning single to left.

He’s only been doing this for four months, but Papelbon has been so good for the Sox that it’s shocking when he doesn’t close out a game. Even after consecutive blown saves-he coughed up a game to the Devil Rays Sunday-his ERA is under 1.00 at 0.94. Prior to Sunday, he hadn’t allowed a hit since June 13 (Ed. note: July 13.–JSS) against the A’s, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is just shy of six-to-one. He hasn’t been used in a manner that would suggest the back-to-back blown saves are a product of fatigue, so this is likely just one of those random things that happen during a season.

For the Sox, though, who lost two key players just as the Yankees were adding two key players, it’s a nightmare. To lose a pair of games to the two worst teams in the league, blowing a number of opportunities to stretch a lead and give the closer a cushion, is devastating. The gap between playing in October and not is likely to be fewer than two games in the AL this year, and the Sox have just made it that much more likely that they’ll fall on the wrong side of that line.

The beneficiary of all this is the Twins, who got their own bad news this week with the elbow injury to Francisco Liriano. It devastated them so badly that they went out and took the next two games they played, against the best team in the league on their home field. After their ace, Johan Santana, had surrendered his second lead of the game by allowing a two-run homer to Brandon Inge in the seventh, the Twins’ M&M boys assembled a rally in the eighth. Joe Mauer, OBP machine, worked a six-pitch walk; two batters later, Justin Morneau rocketed a first-pitch fastball into the right-field seats for a 4-3 lead.

Oh, a detail: the Twins rallied off of another relief phenom, Joel Zumaya. Before last night, Zumaya hadn’t allowed a run since July 14, or a homer since June 21. His 100-mph heat has been a critical part of the Tigers’ dream season. The Twins’ were familiar with his work: they’d been shut out on three hits in eight previous innings against the right-hander. Breaking that streak last night was worth a game in the standings.

One night, three cities, each game coming down to just a few key pitches. It’s a reminder that the greatness of baseball doesn’t reside just in October, when the networks care, but in the summertime, when the fans do.

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