How was that for bonus baseball?
As Gomez scored from second—well ahead of a late throw from right field— Homer Hankies spiraled. The Twins celebrated and scrambled: They had 21 hours to get ready for Game 1 of the AL playoffs at Yankee Stadium against New York ace CC Sabathia(notes). He’ll face rookie Brian Duensing(notes).
The Tigers will head home instead. They became the first team in history to blow a three-game lead with four games left.
“I guess it’s fitting to say there was a loser in this game because we lost the game, but it’s hard for me to believe there was a loser in this game,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “Both teams played their hearts out. You can’t ask for anything more than that.”
The Twins overcame a seven-game gap in the final month, went 17-4 to pull even on the final weekend and won their fifth division title in eight years.
The Tigers thought they’d taken the lead in the 12th. But with the bases loaded, plate umpire Randy Marsh ruled that Brandon Inge(notes) was not hit by a pitch by Bobby Keppel(notes). The replay appeared to show the pitch grazing Inge’s billowing uniform.
“I did not have the ball hitting him. We looked at replays, too, and the replays we’ve looked at, to be honest with you, were inconclusive,” said Marsh, the crew chief.
Said Inge: “No matter what we did, it seems like it wasn’t meant to be. This is the best game, by far, that I’ve ever played in no matter the outcome.”
It was the first AL tiebreaker to go to extra innings, making up for Minnesota’s disappointment last year when it lost 1-0 in Chicago to the White Sox in an AL Central tiebreaker. Had the Twins lost, it would’ve been the final baseball game at the Metrodome. Instead, the Twins get the Yankees—New York was 7-0 against Minnesota this season.
“We’re not afraid. I can guarantee you that,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said.
Said Yankees manager Joe Girardi: “We’re not going to have to face questions like ‘Can you beat them?’ like we’ve had to answer during the course of the year. Once the playoffs start though, it’s a new series and we know the importance of each game. You can pretty much throw everything else out the window.”
Gardenhire and Leyland made so many moves for defense and relief that the lineups and pitching staffs were depleted by the end.
Tigers reliever Fernando Rodney(notes) (2-5) worked his longest appearance of the season, getting the last two outs of the ninth. But he didn’t have enough to get out of the 12th. The Twins rushed out of the dugout in celebration even before Gomez reached the plate, and their comeback from a seven-game gap with 20 to play was complete.
Joe Mauer(notes), who heard thunderous “M-V-P!” chants from the largest regular-season baseball crowd in Metrodome history throughout the game, led his team on a sprint around the warning track as they slapped hands with fans in the first rows.
“One of the best games I’ll ever play in,” Mauer said.
Keppel, Minnesota’s eighth pitcher, loaded the bases with one out in the 12th. After the non-call on Inge, second baseman Nick Punto(notes) then scooped Inge’s grounder and fired home in time to get the runner on the force. Then Keppel struck out Gerald Laird(notes) to squelch that rally.
Twins closer Joe Nathan(notes) found trouble in the ninth when consecutive singles put runners at the corners, but he got a strikeout and a line-drive double play to end that threat. The four-time All-Star gave two huge pumps of his right arm as he spun to thank his defense and run to the dugout, preserving the tie.
Inge’s two-out double in the 10th gave the Tigers a 5-4 lead, but Michael Cuddyer(notes) sliced a triple past Raburn in left and scored on Matt Tolbert’s(notes) bouncing single through the middle in the bottom of the inning.
On the potential winning sacrifice fly, though, Casilla strayed a bit too far from third and was thrown out by Raburn trying to score to end the inning. The split-second Casilla needed to retouch the base might have cost him the run.
He more than made up for that mistake later.
According to sports researcher STATS LLC, only three teams since 1901 have blown a three-game lead in the standings with four games left. The Houston Astros lost three straight games to Los Angeles in 1980, but they recovered to defeat the Dodgers in a tiebreaker game for the NL West. Milwaukee lost three in a row to Baltimore in 1982 to force a tie, but beat the Orioles in the final regular season game to win the AL East.
After splitting four in Detroit last week—a loss in the series finale Thursday would’ve given the division to the Tigers—the Twins came home for the final scheduled series in the bubble needing a sweep of the Kansas City Royals and did just that.
So with 54,088 fans in attendance, the place was erupting with noise and excitement. The chants for Mauer, who wrapped up his third batting title, were deafening. Leyland even told his players before the game to think of the loudest experience of their life and multiply it by four to anticipate the decibel level for this game. Dome ball came in handy again, on a day when the city was drenched by cold rain.
Rookie starter Rick Porcello(notes) pitched well beyond his 20 years for the Tigers, and Miguel Cabrera(notes) made up for a miserable weekend—on and off the field—with a two-run homer against Scott Baker(notes) in the third inning that made it 3-0. The crowd chanted “al-co-ho-lic” right before Cabrera went deep, a rude reference to the first baseman’s fight with his wife after he came home late and drunk.
“We were dead and buried a couple times, and our team just kept coming back,” Twins general manager Bill Smith said.
NOTES: This was the ninth tiebreaker game in baseball history, and the third straight year with a 163rd game. Only two of them went to extra innings. … Seven members of the Metrodome’s cleaning and maintenance crews were honored on the mound before the game for the work of those groups in converting the field back and forth from baseball to football in light of Monday’s Packers-Vikings game.