September 26, 2008

First Place!

Wow.

The lineup with the league's fewest homers goes deep three times in Game 1. The bullpen that's been so shaky for the past four months tosses 10 scoreless innings between Game 2 and Game 3. Carlos Gomez, who came into Game 3 with the AL's lowest OPS, goes 4-for-5 with two triples and a double, and Alexi Casilla, who'd been 29-for-126 (.230) since coming off the disabled list, delivers a walk-off hit in the 10th inning to complete a three-game sweep.

And just like that, the Twins are in sole possession of first place for the first time since August 23.

When three defensive miscues led to a six-run fourth inning for the White Sox and Kevin Slowey exited after taking a line drive off his wrist, it looked like the Twins were following their unfortunate year-long pattern of slipping up immediately after experiencing tremendous success. Instead, the bullpen locked down the White Sox's lineup and the Twins battled back from a 6-1 deficit, responding with two runs of their own in the bottom of the fourth frame and one more in the sixth to set up the late-inning drama.

Up 6-4 with six outs to get, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen turned the game over to his most reliable bullpen duo of setup man Matt Thornton and closer Bobby Jenks, who'd combined for a 2.59 ERA and .211 opponent's batting average in 121.1 innings this year. Brendan Harris led off with a double down the third-base line and Nick Punto advanced him to third base with a ground out, at which point Guillen pulled Thornton for Jenks, who hadn't blown a save since June 4.

Gomez greeted Jenks by driving in Harris with a bloop single and then came around to score the tying run in spectacularly thrilling fashion when Denard Span yanked a triple down the first-base line. Gomez looked like Usain Bolt flying around the bases, unleashing the full scope of his amazing wheels before diving into the plate with a completely unnecessary yet somehow fitting slide as the 43,000 fans at the Metrodome exploded.

Casilla and Joe Mauer momentarily killed the huge buzz by both failing to knock in Gomez from third base--including a fouled off suicide-squeeze attempt from Casilla--and the game advanced to the ninth tied at 6-6. With no save chance possible, Ron Gardenhire smartly brought in closer Joe Nathan, who shook off his recent shakiness to set down six straight batters in two perfect frames, recording more than three outs for just the fourth time this year and completing two innings for just the second time.

With Nathan apparently done despite throwing only 26 pitches and rookie Jose Mijares warming up in the Twins' bullpen, Guillen did what Gardenhire was seemingly unwilling to do and sent Jenks out for a third inning. He retired Harris on a ground out, but walked Punto on four straight pitches. Gomez moved him to second base with a ground out and Punto alertly scampered to third on a wild pitch, putting the game-winning run 90 feet away with two outs.

Guillen ordered an intentional walk of Span, which made plenty of sense given that he was 3-for-4 with a pair of extra-base hits on the night to boost his batting average to .299. Plus, Casilla was on deck after striking out against Jenks in an ugly at-bat that left the go-ahead run stranded on third base two innings earlier, making him 2-for-12 with four strikeouts in the series and 18-for-79 (.228) this month. Casilla took a first-pitch fastball right down the middle and then laced a line drive to center field.

                 W      L     WIN%      GB
Twins 87 72 .547 ---
White Sox 86 72 .544 0.5

Sweeping the White Sox is a beautiful thing and last night's game was among the most exciting in my two decades as a Twins fan, but a half-game lead guarantees nothing but a meaningful final weekend. If the Twins avoid a letdown they should take at least two out of three from the Royals, who even after going 16-7 this month are a half-game from last place at 73-86 overall. Similarly, if momentum means anything the White Sox should have trouble with the Indians, who're 79-80 overall after a 30-16 run.
FRIDAY MATCHUP         W      L      ERA     xFIP
Kyle Davies 8 7 4.21 5.09
Francisco Liriano 6 3 3.39 4.44

SATURDAY MATCHUP W L ERA xFIP
Gil Meche 13 11 4.05 4.11
Glen Perkins 12 4 4.50 5.07

SUNDAY MATCHUP W L ERA xFIP
Brandon Duckworth 3 2 5.06 5.26
Scott Baker 10 4 3.59 4.30

Over the past six years this blog has rarely featured Saturday or Sunday content, but my guess is that tradition will probably be broken this weekend with a new entry or two, so feel free to stop by. You can also check out my weekly Friday morning appearance on KFAN at around eight o'clock to hear me talk Twins with Mike Morris, Cory Cove, and Chris Hawkey on "The Power Trip Morning Show." And come Monday hopefully it'll be time break down the playoff roster and preview the Twins' first-round series.


Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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