DETROIT -- After 10 hours at Comerica Park and 19 innings of piano-wire-taut baseball on Tuesday, the Twins could look back at their doubleheader with the Tigers and realize that what seemed like the most innocuous move of the day kept them alive another day.
The Tigers won the nightcap behind ace Justin Verlander 6-5. As the Twins grinded through the first game, they knew Verlander awaited; they knew losing the opener would leave them on the brink of elimination.
Wednesday offers another day of baseball drama because manager Ron Gardenhire made a move that didn't work as planned in Game 1, leaving the Twins grateful for unintended consequences.
"We were able to screech out a win," Gardenhire said. "That's playoff baseball. It was everything it was built up to be."
In the eighth inning of the first game, with the score at 1-1, Kubel singled with one out, and Gardenhire replaced one of his slowest players with Gomez, the fastest player on the team.
Gomez didn't score, and Gardenhire admitted he regretted his move when Kubel's turn came around in the 10th and he had Gomez at the plate instead.
In the ninth, Gardenhire made a decision he said he didn't regret -- but should have. He called for Nick Punto to squeeze-bunt with a runner on third and one out. Tigers reliever Brandon Lyon appeared to discern the strategy and threw a high pitch that Punto popped up for a double play, sending the game, ominously, to the bottom of the ninth.
"Going out to play defense the next inning, the crowd was getting into it and I was like, 'Uh-oh, here we go,'" Twins outfielder Denard Span said. "It was one of those feelings like, 'Something bad is about to happen.'"
With a runner on second and one out in the bottom of the ninth, Detroit's Ramon Santiago smoked a Jon Rauch pitch toward the right-field corner. Span took off on contact and what looked like a game- winning double died in his glove at the warning track.
Had Gardenhire left the slow-footed Kubel in the game, Kubel would have stayed in right, Santiago's drive would have fallen, and the Twins would have fallen three games behind with six to play, with Verlander waiting.
"Once we got the lead, I could joke about it," Rauch said. "I told Kubel if he was still in the game, we lose, because there was no way he's making that play."
Span led off the 10th with a single that started a two-run rally, so it was 3-1 when Twins closer Joe Nathan took the mound. Curtis Granderson led off the bottom of the 10th with a home run. (Nathan's monthly ERAs this season: 2.57, 2.19, 0.00, 1.69, 2.46 -- and 4.36 in September.)
Placido Polanco smacked another drive, this one to right-center, and Gomez ran it down easily. "Pretty good, eh?" he said with a big smile.
As fast and accomplished as Span is, he might not have made that catch. Thus, Gomez pinch-running for Kubel set up the two most important plays in the game for the Twins -- Span's game-saving catch in the ninth, and Gomez' Nathan-saving catch in the 10th.
"I do think right field is Span's best position," Gardenhire said. "He plays them all well, but he really runs the ball down in right field."
Four hours before Verlander took the mound, Gomez lounged in the Twins' clubhouse, joking about taking over the cleanup spot for Kubel in the 10th. "I hit fourth in the lineup, and I have to bunt? Unbelievable," Gomez said, leaning back in a chair, pretending to be angry. "Come on, man. That's the four-hole. They walk Mauer and pitch to Gomez."
About five hours later, Verlander threw a fastball under Gomez' chin, then struck him out with a curveball that buckled his knees, reminding the Twins how grateful they were for the unintended consequences of sending Gomez in to pinch run in Game 1.
Jim Souhan can be heard at 10-noon Sunday, and 6:40 a.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday on AM-1500. His twitter name is SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org