On Sept. 20, the Detroit Tigers beat the Minnesota Twins 6-2 to take a three-game lead in the American League Central in what they thought was the last game they would ever have to play in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.
Having lost a heartbreaker the day before, when left fielder Don Kelly lost a fly ball in the all-white Metrodome ceiling to continue a late-inning Twins rally, the Tigers were more than happy to never return to the dome.
Last week at Comerica Park, the Tigers watched their lead evaporate, going 3-4. The Twins, though, won their last four games, including an improbable 5-4 victory over the Kansas City Royals and Cy Young favorite Zack Greinke on Saturday. Detroit left the door open for Minnesota, and the Twins forced a one-game playoff to be played in the Metrodome Tuesday.
After getting a very good pitching performance from Rick Porcello – who was very impressive considering his large workload (170 innings) and his age (20) – and early offense from Miguel Cabrera, who recently put a gigantic target on his back with his weekend drunken stupor, the Tigers’ offense sputtered as the game went on and hits with men on base became sparse.
Detroit had a chance to take control of the game again with runners on first and third with nobody out in the top of the ninth. On a 2-2 slider that was clearly three inches inside, plate umpire Randy Marsh rung up Placido Polanco with a called strike three. This was a terrible call and yet, it wasn’t the last bad call Marsh would make.
With one out, Magglio Ordonez stepped to the plate having tied the score with a solo home run the inning before. If he would’ve somehow found a way to get the run in from third, we’d be talking about how Maggs was the hero. Instead, closer Joe Nathan jammed him inside with a fastball shortstop Orlando Cabrera was able to stab and quickly fire to first to double off Curtis Granderson, who wandered too far off the base.
Again, in the top of the 12th, the Tigers had a scoring chance. With the bases loaded and one out, Bobby Keppel threw an inside fastball to Brandon Inge that looked like it caught his jersey. Again, Marsh would give the Twins a major break as he called ball one, continuing the at-bat.
Inge eventually grounded to second base, where Nick Punto made a great defensive play to get Miguel Cabrera running home. Catcher Gerald Laird promptly struck out, and two prime late-inning scoring chances with runners on third and fewer than two outs were squandered.
The bottom of the 12th started and closer Fernando Rodney came back out of the dugout. Having already finished the last three innings, it was clear he didn’t have much left. Manager Jim Leyland stuck with his closer, asking him to throw 48 pitches in three-plus innings, which he hadn’t done all season.
It was an odd decision. Leyland must’ve had some idea as to who would come in after Rodney. With the importance of this game, it wouldn’t have been crazy to pitch ace Justin Verlander for an inning or two. The season was on the line, and starters generally throw bullpen sessions between starts.
Even with the gigantic workload Verlander has had – he hasn’t thrown fewer than 120 pitches in a start since Sept. 14 – it’s likely he would’ve had more in the tank than Rodney. He blew the game when Alexi Casilla’s ground ball trickled into left field scoring the winning run, which gave the Twins a 6-5 victory and a chance to face the New York Yankees in the ALDS.
So, for the fourth straight year, Leyland’s Tigers end their season with great disappointment. The offseason brings many questions about Leyland’s future and whether this team’s core can win.
Offense definitely will be a priority as it was the primary reason the Tigers didn’t make the playoffs, even after having a seven-game lead in the division Sept. 7. It was a heartbreaking end for a team and a city in a season that was just a little too long.