Twins flying high after tense, taut thriller

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 7, 2009 - 11:27 AM

Alexi Casilla grounded a single to right field in the bottom of the 12th inning, scoring Carlos Gomez from second base for a victory that left an announced crowd of 54,088 at the Metrodome delirious and sent the Twins into the playoffs.

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire had a panicked question for bench coach Steve Liddle in the 12th inning Tuesday night, as he watched Alexi Casilla stroll to home plate against Tigers closer Fernando Rodney.

"He's got numbers off this guy, right?" Gardenhire barked.

"Yes," Liddle assured him, "He's 3-for-5."

Never mind Casilla's .202 season batting average. It had been that kind of night. Decisions made on the fly. Little ones, big ones, with nothing but the entire season on the line.

Casilla had told Liddle he wanted to be the hero of this one-game tiebreaker to decide the American League Central. Two innings earlier, he looked like the goat.

But sure enough, Casilla grounded a single to right field, scoring Carlos Gomez from second base for a 6-5 victory that left an announced crowd of 54,088 at the Metrodome delirious.

Gomez raced around third base and slid headfirst into home, even though the play wasn't close. Players rushed from the dugout to mob Gomez, then hustled out near third base to mob Casilla.

Liddle hugged Gardenhire, saying "He's 4-for-6, now!"

As the players celebrated, Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" blared over the loudspeakers. That's where the Twins were headed after they'd had their fill of champagne and beer. Tonight, they will face the Yankees in Game 1 of the Division Series.

The Twins went 0-7 against the Yankees this year, and they are 5-26 against the Yankees in New York under Gardenhire, counting the postseason. Of course, the Twins haven't faced the Yankees in three months, and they will enter this series riding a 17-4 streak.

"We can play with anybody; we're playing pretty good baseball," Gardenhire said. "We're not afraid, I can guarantee you that."

Why should they be? They are the first team since divisional play started in 1969 to overcome a three-game deficit with four days left in the regular season. And there were numerous times Tuesday, when it looked like this late-season fairy tale would end, closing a 28-year chapter for the Twins in the Metrodome.

The Twins trailed 3-2 in the seventh inning, when Orlando Cabrera's two-run homer gave them their first lead. Magglio Ordonez tied it in the eighth with a home run off Matt Guerrier. Then, things really got interesting.

Twins closer Joe Nathan made a Houdini-like escape in the ninth inning, keeping the Tigers scoreless after they'd put runners at first and third with no outs.

"After about 10 innings," Gardenhire said, "I was going, 'Oh my God, I've never seen anything like this.' "

The Tigers took a 10th-inning lead on Brandon Inge's two-out, RBI double. But Matt Tolbert tied it on a run-scoring bouncer up the middle that came inches from being a game-ending double play turned by Placido Polanco.

Casilla, who entered the game as a pinch runner that inning, raced to third base on Tolbert's hit. The Twins nearly won right there, when Nick Punto hit a liner to left field. But Casilla's foot wasn't on third base, so he had to retreat before tagging up and running home.

Tigers left fielder Ryan Raburn, who had misplayed a sinking liner by Michael Cuddyer into a triple to start the inning, redeemed himself, throwing a one-hop strike to nail Casilla at the plate.

"[Casilla] didn't get quite back in time, but Raburn out there, good God, what a throw," Gardenhire said.

After each team went through a 1-2-3 11th inning, Twins reliever Bobby Keppel survived a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the 12th. Inge hit a bouncer to Punto, who made a heads-up play, throwing home to get Miguel Cabrera for the forceout, and Keppel fanned Laird to end the inning, drawing yet another roar from hoarse voices all over the stadium.

That set the stage for Gomez and Casilla, the two players Gardenhire affectionately calls the "Loose Cannons." Gomez had entered as a defensive replacement in the eighth inning and wound up batting twice in spots where the Twins would have preferred Jason Kubel.

Sure enough, Gomez singled to open the 12th before scoring on Casilla's big hit.

As the wild celebration inside the Twins' clubhouse unfolded, Liddle just shook his head.

"The Loose Cannons finally came through," he said. "Nobody can contain the Cannons."

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