Alexi Casilla, banished to the minors early in spring training, slapped the winning hit to center with two out in the bottom of the 10th.

Denard Span, defeated in the center field competition in spring training, jogged to second, his fist in the air, before sprinting back to Casilla and flattening him with a chest bump as teammates swarmed.

Nick Punto, who lost his starting job this spring, screamed as he ran home with the winning run.

If there was anything more improbable than the identities of the players who beat the White Sox on Thursday night in the Metrodome, it was that this trio could lift the Twins into first place in late September. That's what happened when Casilla's single finished a comeback from a 6-1 deficit to beat Chicago 7-6. "I can't even breathe,'' Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said.

As the Twins celebrated in the middle of the diamond, the White Sox slunk off the field, shortstop Orlando Cabrera pulling his shirt out, as the Twins celebrated as if they won the division. Maybe that's exactly what they accomplished.

"That,'' Gardenhire said, "was the most intense series I've ever been a part of.''

The Twins' coaches crammed into Gardenhire's office long after the game, part of their nightly ritual, and bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek wondered if he would need a paper bag to prevent hyperventilation on the way home. Maybe that should be the Twins' promotion this weekend -- paper bags, or defibrillators, for everyone.

What more do you want in a game? We saw individual excellence, as Joe Mauer got three hits in pursuit of another batting title. We saw pain and grief, as Kevin Slowey took a liner off his right wrist, threw the ball away and trudged off the mound, on his way for X-rays.

We saw one of baseball's most talented and erratic players giveth, and taketh away. Carlos Gomez ran into Span on Jim Thome's fly to right-center in the fourth inning, knocking the ball away and turning a one-run inning into a six-running inning. Gomez also hit two triples, a double and a single and made a diving catch.

We saw dramatics, as the Twins scored the next six runs, with Span tripling with one out in the bottom of the eighth to score Gomez and make it 6-6.

We heard the impossible -- Twins fans who reviled Punto all winter standing in the bottom of the 10th and chanting, "Let's go Pun-to,'' as he drew the one-out walk that led to the big moment.

Although the managers like each other, there is real animosity between these teams. While Ozzie Guillen always has praised the Twins, many of his players have demeaned them, and this week we've heard White Sox players grumbling about all the Twins' bloops and bunts.

Gomez and Span didn't seem to take offense.

They began the spring as strangers. Gomez beat out Span for the center field job, then Span took Gomez' leadoff job during the summer, and now the most exciting plays in the Dome occur when Span makes contact with Gomez on base.

In the bottom of the eighth. Gomez singled to drive home Brendan Harris. Span yanked a ball down the right field line, and Gomez and Span did an impersonation of the Jamaican sprint relay team, with Gomez scoring easily, and Span sliding facefirst into third and throwing fists like Sugar Ray Leonard.

"I don't even know what I was thinking,'' Span said. "I've never had a feeling like that playing this game.''

For Casilla, Span and Punto, the failures of spring seem long ago, and October suddenly beckons.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP.