For a venue so roundly chastised for being a cumbersome, noisy host for baseball all these years, the Baggy Dome is poised for one more awkward dance.
The Minnesota Twins guaranteed at least one more game of baseball in the old facility, giving a raucous-turned-tense home crowd reason to exhale, cheer and wave their Homer Hankies late Tuesday night with an extra-innings victory against the Detroit Tigers.
In the same uphill fashion as they chased down the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central Division standings, the pride of the Twin Cities put off victory until the 11th hour—or was it the 12th?—winning the rare 163rd regular season game and turning their sights to the iconic New York Yankees.
In the bottom of the 12th inning, facing Detroit closer Fernando Rodney, Alexi Casilla slapped a true Metrodome bouncing ball through the infield hole and Carlos Gomez scored easily to cap a most improbable run just to reach the playoffs.
Prior to the game, Rodney had not lasted three innings on the mound since Aug. 5, 2008. The right-hander, who's spent his eight-year career in a Tigers uniform, had also never gone as far into a game as he did Tuesday night.
After Gomez slid across home plate, some fans probably had to remind themselves that what looked like a World Series victory celebration on the field was only the end of the regular season.
Fast-forward to next Sunday. If all goes according to conventional logic, the Twins' feel-good story and Cinderella hopes will evaporate—at the Metrodome, where it all began—at the hands of the mighty Yankees. And the looks of despair and disbelief befallen the faces in the visiting dugout Tuesday night will be worn by the Twins (AccuScore.com gives Minnesota a 31 percent chance of prevailing against New York).
Then again, neither the Twins nor the Yankees have had much luck in opening round playoff series during this decade. Both teams have dropped their last three playoff appearances in the first round (New York lost three straight divisional series, from 2005 to 2007; and Minnesota went out with a whimper in 2003, 2004 and 2006).
But New York has the restored swagger of a team assured of its own superiority—a team that has bought in to manager Joe Girardi's disciplinarian style of leadership. The Yankees won over 100 games for the first time since 2004. They led the American League in most offensive categories, and finished third in team ERA.
They also didn't pussyfoot around during the final stretch, winning seven in a row in late September with a playoff berth already firmly in hand.
The Yankees will turn to a three-man rotation in the opening round: CC Sabathia in Game One, followed by A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte. The Twins counter with rookie left-hander Brian Duensing, Nick Blackburn and former Yankee Carl Pavano (Scott Baker, who started Tuesday, would be the likely go-to man in Game Four).
Pavano makes his first postseason start—and second October outing against the Yankees—since a dazzling performance as a Florida Marlin in the 2003 World Series (in which he allowed just one run over eight innings in Game Four).
The mismatch in starting pitching is obvious, as the Yanks boast a pair of playoff-tested southpaws in Sabathia and Pettitte. The three combined won a total of 46 regular season games, compared to the Twins' trio of 21.
Duensing, a late-season switch from the bullpen to the rotation, makes his first ever appearance at Yankee Stadium this afternoon (he's faced New York once this year, but in relief at the Metrodome; he allowed four earned runs in two-and-two-thirds innings). Duensing's response to pitching coach Rick Anderson breaking the news to him that he'd be taking the ball read like something out of an Onion story:
"I didn't know if I was going to be in the pen because what if the first round we really only need three starters?" Duensing said. "So I kind of thought there would be a chance that I wouldn't make the first-round roster. I didn't know what goes on."
Although they were winless as a team against the Bronx Bombers this year, the Twins still bring to the plate one of the most efficient small-ball lineups in the American League. Led by MVP candidate Joe Mauer (.364 average, 28 home runs, 96 RBI), Ron Gardenhire's bunch emphasizes first-to-third fundamentals—they were second only to the Yankees and Angels (both tied) in team hits this season.
The Yanks get it done with one of the most veteran-heavy lineups in baseball (average age 30), with no easy way to pitch any batter from top to bottom. But the most menacing patch, of course, is the heart of the order—Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Hideki Matsui.
Speaking of trios, the Twins' starters will have their work cut out for them pitching around these three monsters. Teixeira and A-Rod both destroyed right-handed pitching in '09 (Teix hit 30 of his 39 long balls vs. righties and Rodriguez smacked 22 of his 28 dingers against them).
The Twins, as usual, boast a more youthful lineup (average age 27). But this cast of characters, especially the starting infield, is battle-tested in the playoffs. Mauer, Justin Morneau, Casilla, Orlando Cabrera and Joe Crede have all seen postseason play more than once.
Aside from Duensing, don't expect to see a group of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed newcomers in awe of Yankee Stadium. As for Casilla, Tuesday's hero: He's 9-for-13 (.629) lifetime against New York ace Sabathia.
The odds are stacked against fans seeing more than one last game at the Metrodome. The Chicago White Sox, winners of last year's tiebreaker (against Minnesota), succumbed to Tampa Bay in four games. But they also weren't riding an unprecedented wave similar to the one that propelled the 2007 Colorado Rockies straight through to the World Series.
The best thing to happen to the amped-up Twins might just be their lack of rest. With a full day off Thursday, don't be surprised to see Minnesota harness the energy of the past few weeks—and especially Tuesday night—into a weapon against the Yankees.
They'll need that and a hearty dose of luck to keep the Homer Hankies shaking and the dome booming a few more times.
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