Game 163, Twins-Tigers: Recalling Better Days

The Cleveland Indians topped the Twins 5-1 on Sunday, completing their four-game series sweep at Target Field and mercifully ending the Twins’ season. Cleveland won ten straight games to end the season, and will now face the winner of a game 163 showdown between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Texas Rangers. This will be the first time the Indians’ have made the playoffs since 2007.

Even in the land of eternal optimism, this past season for the Twins has been difficult to watch. The organization now enters the offseason facing a myriad of questions about the health of their franchise player, their current manager and their woeful pitching staff. But, in light of the first game 163 since 2009, let’s revisit the historic game 163 that took place between the Twins and Tigers in ’09.

The date was October 6, 2009. The setting was the Metrodome. The Tigers’ had imploded down the stretch in a divisional race that had seemed all but decided in the weeks previous. Thus, the Twins’ would be participating in their second straight game 163 in as many years.

The never-not-pacing Scott Baker started for the Twins facing the unbelievably 20-year-old Rick Porcello of the Tigers.

Scoring was quiet until the third inning when the runner-up for the starring role in Eastbound and Down, Magglio Ordonezsingled home Curtis Granderson.

Miguel Cabrera came to the plate next, and in a reference to his recent DUI arrest, thousands of fans shed their “Minnesota Nice” dispositions for a moment and joined the chanted chorus of: “Al-co-hol-ic, clap, clap, clap-clap-clap.”

I was at this game, and it was loud. I found myself wondering: “Guys, what are we doing, this is not a good idea. Never poke the bear, leave the sleeping giant alone.”

And then, with Ordonez still on first, the giant woke up. 3-0 Tigers.

The Twins managed to bring home a run on a throwing error in the bottom of the third, but the score remained 3-1 until Jason Kubel monstrously homered in the sixth. 3-2 Tigers.

Going into the bottom of the seventh, things were not looking good. But with one on and one out, Orlando Cabrera hit a two-run homer just over the left field wall. 4-3 Twins.

The over 54,088 fans that were packed to the rafters of the 136.9 percent full Metrodome were euphoric. I have never been to a game this loud. You were screaming into the ears of the people next to you, and still couldn’t hear each other.

This was going to be the last regular season game in the Metrodome, and the last ever if the Twins’ lost, so the crowd was making sure that the old place would be sent out in style. At this point, victory appeared to be in sight. Surely, the reliable Matt Guerrier would pitch a scoreless eighth, which would allow Joe Nathan to slam the door in the ninth.

And then, two pitches into the the top of the eighth, Magglio sucked the life out of the place. 4-4, tie game.

It is around this point that the game’s significance began to start sinking in. The 162 game format of the baseball season can often remove some of the urgency and desperation that is present in the regular season of sports like the NFL. The single-elimination round that the expansion of wild-card teams brought in 2012 has made the MLB playoffs much more interesting, but prior to this, even in the pressure of October there was still a residual sense that: “If we lose today, we will come back and get them tomorrow.”

This is what made a single-game tiebreaker so intriguing, especially when one occurred in back-to-back years. It was an intense game in 2008 when the Twins were defeated by the Chicago White Sox 1-0 in game 163, but that game was largely a pitcher’s duel, and lacked some of the dramatics of 2009.

After 162 games and eight innings the Twins and Tigers were still tied going into the top of the ninth. Joe Nathan came on, and quickly there were runners at first and third with no outs. At this point, like many others in the ballpark, I found myself trying to take heart in the consolation that it had been a great game.

But Nathan struck out Placido Polanco, and then Magglio Ordonez lined out to Orlando Cabrera, who quickly doubled off the runner at first. The magician’s act had been completed. We were headed to extra innings. The applause was deafening.

However, in the top of the 10th inning Brandon Inge doubled home a run. The Twins headed into the bottom half of the inning down 5-4.

In the interim between innings a video played on the jumbo-tron that featured Michael Cuddyer saying something along the lines of: “Over, it’s not over, until we say it’s over!” The crowd that had been mulling over the silver linings to be derived from losing this game, went absolutely crazy.

Cuddyer led off the inning against the hard-throwing Fernando Rodney. In a 2-2 count Cuddyer hit a flare into shallow left field that Ryan Raburn, who was playing deep, no doubles defense, dove and missed. Cuddyer advanced to third base. (So technically, the whole no doubles thing worked.)

It seemed that tying the game was a certainty, but of course, Delmon Young got out. After Brendan Harris walked and was replaced by Alexi Casilla as a pinch runner, the Twins were just one double play away from the end of their season.

Matt Tolbert came to the plate, and quickly fell behind 0-2. He then hit a chopper up the middle that seemed sure to result in a double play, but it got through the hole. 5-5, tie game. The crowd was in unintelligible glee.

Better still, Casilla had advanced to third on the single and now Nick Punto was one sacrifice fly away from sending the Twins to the playoffs. Unfortunately, it seemed that Casilla was sick the day they taught tagging-up at baseball school, and was gunned down at the plate by a slightly redeemed Ryan Raburn.

It was hard to believe that this blunder would not come back to bite the Twins, and in the top of the 12th inning, such fears seemed about to come true. Bobby Keppel, a journeyman pitcher who would be cut from the Twins’ roster after the season, found himself with the bases loaded and one out. Brandon Inge was at the plate, and after a questionable no-call when it appeared that he was hit by a pitch, Inge hit a chopper to a charging Nick Punto, who threw home and got the force out.

Bobby Keppel struck out the next batter, and the Twins went on to win it in the bottom of the 12th on an RBI single from Alexi Casilla, who absolved himself of his base running gaffe in the 10th inning by bringing Carlos Gomez home.

The unrestrained joy of the crowd erupted as the Twins’ rushed onto the field to celebrate, and John Gordon proclaimed that this game “Would be remembered for a long, long time.”

He was right.

It was the type of game where you became best friends with everyone sitting in front and behind you from all the high-fiving that took place. For a moment game 163 gave myself, and a whole generation of fans like me a brief glimpse of the Twins’ magic that won the World Series in 1987 and 1991.

Even now, it can be frustrating to discuss the current state of the Twins with fans over the age of 25, as for many there is still a residual sense of good-feeling provided by our organization winning one of the greatest World Series of all time in 1991. In the time that I have been old enough to really follow the Twins, the greatest success the club has achieved has been winning the LDS against the A’s in 2002.

However, for me, the Twins-Tigers game 163 in 2009 was my “See you tomorrow night,” “Jack Morris in Game 7″ moment as a fan, and I count myself lucky to have been in attendance.

As the Twins’ finish what has been a miserable three-year run, here is hoping that the organization will begin to make the steps to ensure that the glory days aren’t just behind us.

Other Notes:

1. Game 163 in 2009 was rated as the 16th greatest game of all time by an MLB special.

2. Carlos Gomez was lucky that Brian McCann wasn’t playing catcher for the Tigers in 2009, or he may never have been allowed to touch home plate.

3. Game 163 was the first and only game Bobby Keppel ever won in the majors.

4. Though he did do this in Japan.

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Tags: AL Central Alexi Casilla Detroit Tigers Jason Kubel Joe Nathan Michael Cuddyer Minnesota Twins Scott Baker