Baker stifles Royals in season finale

Baker stifles Royals in season finale

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Twins' 162-game regular-season schedule is complete, but as of Sunday night, there was still no American League Central champion.

Minnesota maintained its half-game lead over the White Sox in the division race with a 6-0 victory against the Royals on Sunday afternoon in their regular-season finale at the Metrodome.

But thanks to Chicago's 5-1 win over Cleveland earlier in the day, the Twins will have to wait until at least Monday to find out if they will win their fifth AL Central title in the last seven seasons.

"It's kind of been an ongoing joke that no one wanted to win the Central, so this is kind of probably the way it should go down," Twins closer Joe Nathan said. "That there has to be at least one extra game tomorrow when the season is over."

The White Sox will have a chance to make up the half-game deficit when they host the Tigers on Monday for one last regular-season contest. It's a makeup of a game between the clubs that was rained out earlier this month.

A loss by the White Sox in that contest and the Twins are division champions. But if the South Siders manage a victory over Detroit, the Twins will be heading to Chicago for a one-game tiebreaker to decide the AL Central title on Tuesday.

It's clear what the Twins' preference would be.

"Hopefully, it works out to the point where we don't have to play that game," said pitcher Nick Blackburn, who is scheduled to start for the Twins on Tuesday in Chicago if the tiebreaker is needed. "I mean, it's fine if we do. I'll be excited to throw. But obviously, we would rather be going to Tampa Bay than to Chicago."

The Twins would have liked to already have been packing their bags on Sunday for the American League Division Series against the Rays. But they couldn't be too upset about the scenario of a possible one-game tiebreaker after missing chances to pick up a game on Chicago in their first two contests against the Royals.

Back-to-back losses to the Royals to start their final home series surprisingly didn't end up costing the Twins any ground in the division race. That's because the White Sox dropped two contests at home to Cleveland over those same two days.

So a win in either of those contests and the Twins would have been popping champagne in their home clubhouse on Sunday. Still, the players weren't focused on that after the game.

"You could say coulda, shoulda, woulda," Denard Span said. "But we're just happy that we won today. The season goes on, and we're not going home. You see us packing up to go to Chicago or Tampa Bay, but we're not packing up to go home."

The victory was necessary for the Twins to keep control of their season. Otherwise, the club would have left its entire playoff fate in the hands of the White Sox in Monday's contest.

So on a day when a victory to salvage the series against the Royals was greatly needed, it only seemed fitting that right-hander Scott Baker was on the mound for Minnesota.

Of the five pitchers in the rotation, Baker is considered to be the "veteran." And he looked like one in this win in front of 42,942 fans at the Metrodome.

Baker (11-4) pitched seven scoreless innings, allowing just four hits to the Royals and tying his career high in strikeouts with nine.

"We've been playing a lot of Game 7s, and today was another Game 7," Nick Punto said. "Scott Baker took that ball and performed like a Game 7 starting pitcher. We needed that. It was a huge win."

"It was a situation where it was a must-win game," Baker added. "I was going to go out there and give my best effort, and whatever happened, happened. Thankfully, it worked out today."

The Twins didn't manage a ton of offense early in this one, as Baker pitched with a 2-0 lead during most of the contest. The Twins tagged Royals starter Brandon Duckworth for just the two runs (one earned) over his six innings. It included an RBI double by Span in the second inning. The other run scored on a fielding error by Royals catcher John Buck when Brendan Harris grounded into a fielder's choice in the third.

The club got a little more breathing room in the seventh when it added two more runs to its lead on a bases-loaded, one-out double by Delmon Young. It eased the burden on left-hander Jose Mijares, who pitched a scoreless eighth. Joe Mauer then added two more in the bottom of the eighth with a triple, giving Nathan a six-run cushion for the final inning.

But it wasn't necessarily how the Twins got the win on Sunday, just the fact that they got one at all.

"We finish the season ahead by a half-game, and who would have thought it at the beginning of the year?" manager Ron Gardenhire said. "No one gave us much of a chance, and now here we are. Whether it's a playoff game against the White Sox or going down to Tampa, we're in a pretty good position here to see what happens."

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.