September 28, 2006

Twins 2, Royals 1 (First Place)

The Twins moved into a first-place tie last night thanks to five innings of one-run ball from Brad Radke and a game-tying homer in the bottom of the ninth inning from Joe Mauer, which is just about the best sentence I can imagine typing on September 29, 2006. After trailing the Tigers by a dozen games at the All-Star break, the Twins simply need to win more games than the Tigers over the next 72 hours to take home their fourth division title in five years.

It's a remarkable comeback that was laughable in June, impossible in July, improbable in August, and unlikely as recently as yesterday afternoon. And now? Well, all the Twins have to do is beat the White Sox a few times and hope the Royals can ruin the Tigers' final homestand. The Tigers demolished the Royals in Kansas City last week, Johan Santana is skipping his final start, and the White Sox have an awful lot of motivation to play hard this weekend, so a division title is perhaps still unlikely.

Of course, how "unlikely" can anything really be at this point? The Twins began the season 25-33, but have lost just 31 times in the 101 games since then. By going 70-31 over that span they've climbed to within one game of the league's best record, amazingly clinched a playoff spot with a week remaining on the schedule, and are going down to the wire fighting for a division championship with a team that once seemed unbeatable.

Whether or not the weekend ends in another AL Central crown, the way the Twins moved into first place last night will go down as one of the most memorable games of the year. It began with Radke returning to the mound after a month off to rest shoulder injuries that likely would have ended his season if not for the fact that he plans to retire anyway. With many fans hoping just to see him take the mound one last time, Radke instead turned in a performance that exceeded all expectations.

His command wasn't quite at the pinpoint level we've come to expect from one of the greatest control pitchers in baseball history, but Radke breezed through five innings on just 57 pitches while showing off good velocity. It would have been one hell of a way to end a career, going out on a high note in front of the home crowd, except for the fact that Radke pitched well enough to immediately be penciled into the postseason rotation as the Game 3 starter in next week's ALDS.

The big test will come when Radke tries to brush his teeth this morning, but barring a setback there's little reason to think he won't be on the mound at the Metrodome at least one more time. As if Radke starting the game wasn't enough to make it exciting, Mauer kept the game from ending by lacing his 13th homer just over the left-field wall with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning and the Twins on the verge of being shut out for the 15th time this season.

Jason Bartlett then ended the game with a bases-loaded single that scored Justin Morneau with the game-winning run in the 10th inning, turning himself into a perfect symbol of the historic turnaround. When logic overcame stubbornness and the Twins finally decided to call Bartlett up from Rochester in mid-June, they were 29-34. He's started every game since then, booting Juan Castro out of the lineup and off the team, and the Twins have gone 66-30.

Let's recap, if only because it makes me smile: Radke started what is likely the final regular-season game of his career and made himself a much-needed option for the playoffs, Mauer delivered one of the year's clutchest moments, Bartlett came up with the walk-off hit, Morneau touched home plate with the game-winning run, and Joe Nathan even picked up the win that put the Twins into first place. Does it get any better than that?

Short of Santana somehow tossing seven shutout innings or Torii Hunter hitting a couple homers and robbing the Royals of two more, you'd have been hard-pressed to script a better one-game example of everything that has gone right over the past 101 games. Now we'll see what the script holds for the final three games, with "White Sox lay down" hopefully being on the page and kicking off a World Series run with Santana on the mound at the Metrodome hopefully beginning the final act.

Older Posts »