One reaction says it: 'Only in Minnesota'

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 7, 2009 - 7:40 AM
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Twins second baseman Nick Punto made a key defensive play in the 12th inning, throwing home to force out Miguel Cabrera at the plate. The Twins went on to win 6-5 in the bottom of the 12th.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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Frank Viola was part of the all-Metrodome team that was honored Sunday. He stuck around to visit friends and take in Tuesday's tiebreaker game between the Twins and the Detroit Tigers.

Around 9:25 p.m., the champagne spraying had stopped in the home clubhouse and the athletes were starting to contemplate showers and civilian clothes and getting on the buses for the charter flight to New York.

Manager Ron Gardenhire had disappeared to talk with Jim Leyland, his Detroit counterpart, and now he was back in his clubhouse office. He couldn't get through more than one sentence before he would again shake his head in wonderment over a 6-5 victory that required 12 innings, 4 hours, 37 minutes and two more comebacks for a team that had spent the past month coming back from a seven-game deficit.

Viola stuck his long neck into the manager's room and said: "Gardy, I've seen crazy stuff in baseball all my life, but never this crazy. That was the all-timer."

The manager gave a thumbs-up and the Twins' former Cy Young Award winner said, "Only in Minnesota can a guy [Alexi Casilla] come in as a pinch runner, screw up royally by not tagging up, and wind up driving in the winning run."

Viola and Bert Blyleven were the Big Two -- really, the only two -- on the starting staff for the 1987 Twins, Minnesota's first World Series champions. There was no end to the Domeball dramas that season, and many of those players gathered last weekend to say goodbye to the plastic ballpark and retell the stories.

One play the champs always recall was made by second baseman Al Newman in the first inning of the last scheduled home game of '87. A victory over Kansas City would move the Twins to the cusp of the American League West title and allow a pressure-free last week on the road.

The Royals had runners at first and third and no one out in a first-inning threat, and Gary Gaetti fielded a grounder to third. He threw to Newman for the force at second, who then shocked a full house of fans by coming home to cut off the run as well as turn a double play.

The Twins escaped the mess, exploded for five runs in the bottom of the first and turned all nine innings into a rousing sendoff for the division-clinching road trip.

On Tuesday, a new generation of Twins fans filled the Dome to its largest regular-season baseball attendance -- 54,088 -- and they saw a Newmie-like play from Nick Punto, the third baseman for the 2006 drive to the AL Central title, and the shortstop for the 2008 drive to an AL Central tiebreaker, and now the second baseman for the 2009 sprint to this tiebreaker.

"People wonder why I play Nick Punto all the time," Gardenhire said. "That's why I play him. Because he's always in the game, always ready to make the right play. That kid -- that play -- won the ballgame for us today."

It was 5-5 and the Tigers had the bases loaded with one out in the 12th against Bobby Keppel, the Twins' eighth pitcher of the game.

Brandon Inge thought his jersey was brushed by a Keppel pitch. Plate umpire Randy Marsh ruled no material had been touched, and there was about a 50-50 chance the vet ump was correct (just as on balls and strikes).

Inge then hit a chopper over the mound and Punto came flying.

"Gardy always wants us to go for the double play, if possible," Punto said. "I didn't feel like that was a cinch, so I went for the lead runner."

Uh, Nick ... that was no cinch, either.

"I didn't know for sure, but if the throw was on line, we had him [Miguel Cabrera], I thought," Punto said.

The advantage was the play at the plate was a force. Punto's on-the-run throw was accurate but low. Catcher Joe Mauer snared it cleanly and Cabrera was out by a fraction.

Keppel battled with Gerald Laird, and finally struck him out -- the last failure in a long day of missed chances for the Tigers. Then, the lost lads of the Twins' late drive to this tie- breaker, Carlos Gomez and Casilla, combined for the winning run and the Metrodome was a madhouse.

"Only in Minnesota!" Frankie Viola would later holler toward Gardenhire, and that was surely sweet music to the manager's ears.

Patrick Reusse can be heard 5:30-9 a.m. weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP. preusse@startribune.com

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