During the 2009 season, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire called Carlos Gomez and Alexi Casilla “The Loose Cannons,” because they might use their considerable speed to run in any direction at any time for any reason.
He needed the Loose Cannons to roar, as a most dramatic season and one of the greatest games in Twins history refused to end.
In the bottom of the 12th inning of Game 163 of the 2009 season, as buses and planes waited to take the winner to New York for the start of the Division Series, the Loose Cannons and the most random righthander imaginable produced a victory in the last regular-season baseball game played in the Metrodome.
That was Oct. 6, 2009. On Thursday, the Twins and MLB.com rebroadcast the game on what would have been Opening Day for 2020.
Instead, we had a chance to remember the closing act at the Metrodome — one so thrilling that the next night, in Yankee Stadium, batters reaching first base would tell the Twins’ Michael Cuddyer that they considered it one of the greatest games they had ever watched.
Gomez led off the bottom of the 12th. A talented and erratic prospect, Gomez was in his second year with the Twins as the centerpiece of the Johan Santana trade.
Not yet displaying the kind of power that would eventually make him an All-Star, Gomez had played himself onto the bench.
He entered the game as the center fielder in the top of the eighth because of his defensive range, replacing Jason Kubel in the lineup and bumping Denard Span to right. Gomez opened the bottom of the 12th by hooking a single to left off Tigers closer and future Twin Fernando Rodney and advanced to second on Cuddyer’s soft grounder to third.
Rodney was in his third inning of relief. He intentionally walked Delmon Young, bringing Casilla to the plate.
Casilla was, like Gomez, a promising young player who had played his way onto the bench. He would finish the 2009 season batting .202, but he was 3-for-5 in his career against Rodney. Casilla had entered the game as a pinch runner in the bottom of the 10th, so this was his first time up in the game.
In the top of the 12th, Bobby Keppel had survived a bases-loaded, one-out jam when second baseman Nick Punto turned a high chopper into a forceout at home, and then Keppel struck out Gerald Laird.
Casilla dug in and paid homage to the Dome’s spongy turf with one final hit at the grungy old ballpark, bouncing an innocent-looking single to right field that easily scored the fleet Gomez.
Mike Redmond, the backup catcher, sprinted out of the dugout, reaching Gomez just after he crossed home plate, just in time to see him leap high into the air while spiking his helmet.
Gomez’s spikes, as captured in a timeless shot by Star Tribune photographer Brian Peterson, flew almost high enough to perform plastic surgery on Redmond’s face.
Gomez sprinted around inside the Metrodome’s lower level, high-fiving concessionaires and fandom fans. He’d also lay atop the table at the center of the old, cramped, clubhouse, pretending to surf or swim through waves of champagne.
Keppel never pitched in the big leagues again. He retired with a career record of 1-5, with the only victory coming in Game 163.
The Twins’ list of contributors included Matt Tolbert and Ron Mahay. With Justin Morneau injured and Cuddyer playing first base, they started reserve catcher Jose Morales, who would finish his career with zero big-league home runs, at designated hitter.
This weirdness arrived five days after Young, following a Tigers pitcher throwing at him in a game in Detroit, charged the dugout. His own. He wanted to confront Twins reliever Jose Mijares, whose pitch behind a batter’s back had led to retribution against Young.
Not long after the Loose Cannons won Game 163, Frank Viola stopped by the manager’s office to tell Gardenhire, “That was the all-timer.”
The Twins had fallen behind 3-0, and they also needed a run in the bottom of the 10th to send the game to the 11th. In the bottom of the 10th, Casilla had failed to tag quickly on a liner to left and had gotten thrown out at home.
After Casilla redeemed himself, Gardenhire puffed on a victory cigar. “I’d go out there, talk to the guys on the mound, start giggling and say, ‘OK, I’m out of here, boys. Good luck,’” Gardenhire told Viola. “This game is going to live forever.”
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org