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Twins fall in AL Central tiebreaker

Twins fall in AL Central tiebreaker

CHICAGO -- It took 163 contests to decide an American League Central champion. In the end, the Twins just came up one run short.

In a one-game tiebreaker to crown the division champion on Tuesday night, it was Jim Thome's seventh-inning solo home run off Twins starter Nick Blackburn that made the difference in the Twins' 1-0 loss to the White Sox.

The toll of such a close loss was evident inside the visiting clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field after the game. Red eyes and tears mottled the cheeks of many of the players.

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They were left trying to comprehend how they had come so close to the postseason, only to see their season come to a crashing halt in such a devastating way.

"You never want to put 162 games into one game," first baseman Justin Morneau said. "But that's what ended up happening. You don't want to come down to one shot, but that's what [happened]. We're going home and they're going to the playoffs. It's going to hurt for awhile. It's going to be a long night for sure."

The longstanding joke all season had been that this was the division nobody wanted to win. But there certainly looked to be a battle for it between these Twins and White Sox on Tuesday.

Two young starting pitchers overcame their recent struggles to put on quite a show on the mound.

The 23-year-old left-handed starter for the White Sox, John Danks, delivered the performance of his career. Pitching on three days' rest for the first time, Danks tossed eight shutout innings while allowing just two hits and walking three.

"It was tough the whole night," catcher Joe Mauer said. "Their pitchers did a great job. Danks was really tough tonight. He threw some pitches at me, painting the corners, and stuff was moving all over the place. Sometimes you have to tip to your cap to a performance like that."

Meanwhile, Blackburn matched him nearly pitch for pitch during most of the contest.

Before a sold-out crowd of 40,354 -- most of them donned in black in support of the White Sox -- Blackburn showed a lot of composure at a ballpark where he'd previously had trouble. He allowed just two hits over his first six innings.

The two teams who were matched up with identical 88-74 records coming into the contest -- with even their home, road and division records being the same -- kept it knotted up at zero through six innings.

"It came down to just what we thought it would," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "It was two very equal baseball teams getting after each other. Our guys played their heart out."

But in a contest where the Twins offense could manage just two hits, it was one big swing of the bat by Thome to lead off the seventh that made all the difference.

Winner take all
The results of the six previous one-game tiebreakers in MLB history.
Date
To determine
Result
Sept. 30, 2008AL CentralWhite Sox 1, Twins 0
Oct. 1, 2007NL Wild CardRockies 9, Padres 8, 13 innings
Oct. 4, 1999NL Wild CardMets 5, Reds 0
Sept. 28, 1998NL Wild CardCubs 5, Giants 3
Oct. 2, 1995AL WestMariners 9, Angels 1
Oct. 6, 1980NL WestAstros 7, Dodgers 1
Oct. 2, 1978AL EastYankees 5, Red Sox 4

On a 2-2 pitch from Blackburn, Thome got his first changeup of the evening and blasted the hanging pitch deep to center field. The 461-foot homer landed beyond the greenery in center field, onto the concourse area.

"I think tonight kind of sums up the whole season for me," Blackburn said. "I make one mistake and it ends up out of the park. It's kind of been the way the year has gone for me."

Considering the way Blackburn carried them throughout his 6 1/3 innings, his teammates weren't left lamenting the one mistake, but rather their inability to help the rookie starter.

"We couldn't ask him to do anything more," Mauer said of Blackburn. "He was just even-keeled the whole game. He gave us a great shot to win. We just couldn't get him any runs."

Making the loss even tougher was that the Twins appeared to be in line to score the first run in the fifth. Michael Cuddyer put an end to Danks' no-hit bid by leading off the inning with a double to left field.

A deep fly ball to center field by Delmon Young put Cuddyer just 90 feet away from home plate. Brendan Harris followed with a flyout to shallow center field and the Twins made the call to test veteran center fielder Ken Griffey's arm.

Running on a left foot that is still healing from the fracture he suffered on Aug. 8, Cuddyer took off for home. Griffey's throw home bounced twice and the second short-hop went straight into the glove of catcher A.J. Pierzynski.

But even a hard collision, with Cuddyer lowering his shoulder into Pierzynski, wasn't enough to jar the ball loose. And the only real offensive threat by the Twins was over.

"I knew the only play I was going to have, if it was a good throw, was to run him over," Cuddyer said. "I went for his arm, just to try and drive the ball loose. Unfortunately, the ball was stuck. He said he didn't even feel it in his glove. ... That just goes to show it kind of just stuck there."

From there, the Twins would get their only other hit in the eighth on Harris' one-out single to left. That threat ended quickly with Nick Punto grounding into a double play.

For a team that scored the third-highest single-season run total in club history, it was difficult to accept that one run was the difference.

Gardenhire met with his team shortly after the loss, telling them how proud he was of them and their ability to battle all season long despite the harsh way it ended.

"We had a lot of ups and downs, a lot of really tough moments for us," Gardenhire said. "A lot of walk-off losses that are really, really tough to handle for any baseball team. This young baseball team competed and kept bouncing back. We had some good moments, we had some ugly moments. If you look back at it, it was a heck of a performance by a very young baseball team.

"We put ourselves in a situation where we had a chance to win the division tonight, and we lost by one."

As the Twins struggled to stomach the loss, it might not have been easy to see all those positives. But the hope is that this moment might provide a little extra motivation for when the club arrives in Fort Myers, Fla., in February for the start of another year.

"The guys aren't happy just getting here," Morneau said. "We want to improve on this and it's the first step of getting toward the playoffs with all the new guys that we have. I think this team showed a lot and hopefully we'll be even better for it next year."

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

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