The wheels fell off in the eighth inning. Kevin Slowey began to falter, the worn-down bullpen couldn't close the deal and the big lead disappeared almost as quickly as it appeared, turning a blowout into a tie game by the top of the ninth. But, with a little help from the Tropicana Field catwalk that has worked against them in the past, the Twins (61-48) overcame their blown six-run lead and beat the Rays (67-41), 8-6, before 29,210.
With two outs and runners on the corners, Jason Kubel launched a high fly ball that bounced off the A-ring catwalk -- just the second fair ball to hit the closest catwalk to the Tropicana Field roof in the stadium's 13-year history -- and fell to the pitcher's mound.
Tampa Bay shortstop Jason Bartlett was hustling to get under the ball after it took a sharp downward turn upon hitting the walkway, which is suspended approximately 190 feet above the field, but he couldn't get to it in time, allowing Jason Repko to score the tie-breaking run.
"It was awesome. I was on third base, came in and touched home. I looked back, and I saw Bartlett sprinting in, and I didn't know what was going on," Repko said. "Everybody told me it hit the rafters when I got in. That's a part of this field. I was out there in the outfield watching all those fly balls -- it's hard to see. If it hits one of those things, I wouldn't have been able to tell. It worked in our favor, and I think it's great."
According to the rules, any ball that hits the A-ring or B-ring catwalk in fair territory is considered a live ball, so Kubel's RBI single was perfectly within the rules and not up for debate. It did, however, spark a little frustration from the home team.
"I know it works both ways, but to lose a game in a pennant situation like that, because of a roof, truly indicates why there's a crying need for a new ballpark in this area, regardless of where they put it," Rays manager Joe Maddon said, referring to the club's desire for a new stadium. "It just needs to be a real baseball field where, if you lose the pennant by one game and look back at a game like that, because the roof got in the way, we'd be very upset."
Minnesota has been on the wrong end of the catwalk rule before. The first ball to hit the A-ring was hit by Carlos Pena on May 31, 2009, when the Rays were playing the Twins. And the only other time a catwalk has affected the outcome of a game like it did Thursday afternoon, was on May 2, 2007, when Pena's infield pop fly struck the B-ring catwalk, fell for a single and helped Tampa Bay beat Minnesota, 4-3.
"We've lost ballgames here just the same way, so back at you," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "We've seen that at the Metrodome a few times ourselves.
"I'm thankful for that speaker today. I'll take it. I kind of like it right now."
While the way the Twins regained the lead was certainly unconventional, the path they took to reach that stage of the game was no less bizarre.
Looking to give the bullpen a break after Wednesday night's 13-inning slugfest, Slowey threw 114 pitches over his 7 2/3 innings of work and seemed like he would cruise to his 11th win of the year after Minnesota's four-run first inning. But Slowey ran out of gas in the eighth, as Gardenhire put it.
The right-hander gave up a solo home run to B.J. Upton, hit Kelly Shoppach and surrendered a single to Sean Rodriguez in the bottom of the eighth. Carl Crawford moved the runners over with a groundout, and Slowey walked Evan Longoria to load the bases before handing it to the bullpen.
"You get up to 100-plus pitches, there are things that go: Probably command goes first, then velocity goes second," Slowey said. "I left some pitches a little bit up. That's just sort of how it went."
Jesse Crain, pitching for the fourth straight day, relieved Slowey and walked in Willy Aybar to make it 6-2. Left-hander Ron Mahay then entered the game, and the Rays countered with the right-handed-hitting Jason Bartlett, pinch-hitting for Matt Joyce. Bartlett sent a 1-0 pitch down the left-field line for a game-tying grand slam -- the first of his career and Tampa Bay's second against the Twins this season.
"We kind of imploded in the bullpen, walked I don't know how many guys in that eighth inning, then the grand slam by Bartlett tied it up," Gardenhire said. "But our guys came back."
The fact that the Twins had to come back at all was something of a surprise after their at-bats in the top of the first. The Twins reeled off three straight doubles -- Alexi Casilla to right field, Joe Mauer to right and Delmon Young to left -- to go up, 2-0. Kubel and Michael Cuddyer then put together back-to-back singles, putting the Twins up by three with a runner on second.
J.J. Hardy knocked a ground-ball single to center field that scored Kubel and gave the Twins a 4-0 lead. Drew Butera fouled out to Dan Johnson for the third out, giving every batter in Minnesota's lineup an at-bat during the first inning.
For most of the game Thursday afternoon, it seemed those runs would be enough to support Slowey's dominant outing and cruise to an easy victory. But, as it turned out, the Twins needed to back up those runs with a gritty, late-game performance at the plate for the second night in a row. And luck was once again on their side.
"That's huge -- on the road, especially -- to be able to come back and show that we're not going to give up," Slowey said. "At no point in the game do we feel like it's over, and really regardless of the score or what may be happening. They came back and put together a big inning. They did. There's no way around that. And we were able to come right back -- with a little help from the dome."
Adam Berry is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.