On Tuesday night, it took 12 innings to crown a champion. Game No. 163 was filled with back-and-forth scoring, pitching showdowns and critical at-bats.
The dramatic 4 1/2-hour affair came to an end when Alexi Casilla singled to right field, allowing Carlos Gomez to score from second base and capping off a 6-5 victory for the Twins over the Tigers, giving Minnesota its fifth division title in the past eight seasons.
Gomez raced around third base and slid headfirst into home plate for the winning run, although no slide was needed, as Casilla become the most unlikely of heroes for the Twins. It was his first walk-off hit since April 7, with this one earning his club a trip to New York to face the Yankees in the American League Division Series on Wednesday on TBS at 5:07 p.m. CT.
"That is as good a baseball game as I've ever been involved as far as courage from both teams," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. "We came through at the end. But after 10 innings I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I've never seen anything like this.' It was just back and forth, neither team giving up."
The win capped a remarkable run for the Twins, who sat seven games back in the AL Central as recently as Sept. 6, but they caught the Tigers by going 17-4 down the stretch. They became the first team in Major League history to win the division after trailing by three games with four to play.
The Homer Hankies were waving and the home crowd was raucous, as 54,088 fans -- the largest regular-season crowd in Metrodome history -- turned out for what could have been the Twins' final contest under the Dome's Teflon roof.
But after 28 years, the Metrodome doesn't seem willing to let go of baseball just yet and instead is poised to make perhaps one last postseason memory.
"The Metrodome deserved it," said Denard Span, while in a champagne-soaked clubhouse. "It's just a great feeling. The city deserves it. We just want to keep playing. They're not going to shut the Metrodome down quite yet."
This final regular-season game, however, might be tough to top.
"This game is going to live forever," Gardenhire said. "People are going to talk about it forever. I know it was just Game 163, but people are going to talk about this game. There was a lot of stuff that happened in it."
That's putting it mildly.
The Twins overcame an early 3-0 deficit, thanks to Orlando Cabrera's two-run homer
in the seventh that gave them a 4-3 lead, only to have the contest tied at 4 in the eighth inning on a Magglio Ordonez leadoff homer off Matt Guerrier.
Still knotted at 4 heading into the ninth, the Tigers appeared like they would take a lead after they put runners on first and third with no outs against closer Joe Nathan. But Nathan pulled a remarkable escape act. He froze Placido Polanco on a called third strike and then got Ordonez to line into an inning-ending double play to short, as Cabrera made the throw to first base to catch Curtis Granderson off the bag.
"That is as good a baseball game as I've ever been involved as far as courage from both teams. We came through at the end. But after 10 innings I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I've never seen anything like this.' It was just back and forth, neither team giving up."
-- Twins manager Ron Gardenhire
Next up was another chance for the Twins. Nick Punto drew a 10-pitch walk to lead off the ninth and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt. Cabrera grounded out, thanks to a diving stop by third baseman Brandon Inge. Fernando Rodney then intentionally walked Joe Mauer to get to Gomez, who entered the game in the eighth as a defensive replacement for Jason Kubel, but he grounded out.
Having already used Nathan for 1 2/3 innings, the Twins turned to Jesse Crain for the 10th. With one out, Crain hit Aubrey Huff with a pitch and then gave up an RBI double to Inge to put Detroit up, 5-4. And it seemed as if the Twins' magical run would end.
But Michael Cuddyer tripled
to lead off the bottom of the frame and then scored on Matt Tolbert's one-out single up the middle to knot the contest again. The Twins had the winning run on third with one out, but Nick Punto flied out to left field and pinch-runner Alexi Casilla was thrown out at home
as he tried to slide around catcher Gerald Laird's tag.
"It's emotionally draining," said Punto of all the game's crazy moments. "It's one of those things that when you're a little kid, this is what you dream of. We got to do it in a game like that. Not a lot of guys, not a lot of teams get to be in a position like that. It was awesome."
After 1-2-3 innings by both clubs in the 11th, the drama returned in the final frame.
Bobby Keppel got a quick out to start the 12th, but he then loaded the bases with one out in the inning. After intentionally walking Ryan Raburn to set up a double play, Inge hit a bouncer to Punto. Knowing there was no DP, Punto made a quick throw home for the forceout. Keppel then struck out Laird to end the inning, receiving a raucous ovation from the crowd which had undoubtedly witnessed its share of key moments in the contest.
By the time it was over, it seemed understandable that few Twins players could describe what they had just witnessed.
"Honestly, I think I've forgotten half the things that went on during this game," Nathan said. "All I know is the last half-inning, [Carl] Pavano and I were sitting next to each other and saying this is definitely the most incredible game we've been a part of. I think I've been a part of some pretty special games. This one blows it away."
After mobbing Gomez and Casilla on the basepaths following the game-winner, the Twins ran a lap around the Metrodome field, led by Mauer, who secured his third AL batting title in the contest. As they celebrated, Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" blared in the background to signal what is next for Minnesota.
The Twins know that there is a tough task ahead of them to continue this improbable run they've been on, but for one night, they were just happy to celebrate being division champions.
"I didn't think we were ever going to top 2006, but this one does," said Cuddyer. "This one tops it."