Unlucky Fourteenth

If you're one of those big-city swells or jerkwater, meth-cooking hotshots who have something better to do with your weekend nights than sit at home watching a baseball game, well, sad friend, I feel sorry for you. You missed one whale of a ballgame last Friday night. You missed a game for the ages. You missed out on a kick in the crotch that would have had you limping through Labor Day.

Because while the brave men and women of the Minnesota legislature were toiling long into the night hammering out the final details of a stadium bill that will in all likelihood accomplish exactly nothing, the hamstrung Minnesota Twins were involved in the baseball version of a cage match in the Bronx, battling the vaunted Yankees in a driving rain, into the wee hours.

Maybe you've already heard all about it, but this was a game that deserves serious scrutiny. This was a game in which the Twins, playing without three-fourths of their starting infield, were going against Mike Mussina, a man who was 18-2 with a 2.61 earned run average against them during his career. The Twins threw everything they had at the Yankees for 14 innings--and it was nearly, improbably, enough, which says plenty about the character of this team. But it was not enough. And that one sad fact speaks volumes about the team's current predicament and prospects.

By now you likely know that the Twins eventually lost 13-12 on a 14th-inning grand slam by Jason Giambi, who is making more than all the guys in the Twins Friday-night batting order combined. Maybe you heard that Giambi's walk-off slam was the first for a Yankee since no less than Babe Ruth last accomplished the feat in 1925. Perhaps you looked at the box score and did the ugly math the next morning: 40 hits, 14 pitchers, three errors, six home runs for the Yankees and none for the Twins, and a game time of five hours and 45 minutes. Bob Wells, of all people, was the only Twins pitcher to post a 1-2-3 inning. (He reverted to form the next night, serving up a three-run homer to the first batter he faced.)

A closer look at the recap reveals fascinating and horrifying details everywhere you look: The Twins battled back from an 8-3 deficit with a six-run sixth inning, to take a 9-8 lead; their seven earned runs against Mussina were the most they'd ever scored off the Yankee right-hander. The Twins bullpen--Wells, J.C. Romero, and Mike Jackson--then held the Yankees in check for three and one-third innings and handed off the lead to Eddie Guardado with one out in the bottom of the ninth. Guardado, you may recall, was a perfect 14 for 14 in save opportunities. Make that 14 for 15. Bernie Williams, the first batter Guardado faced, promptly homered to tie the game, after which Eddie settled down and retired the Yankees through the tenth.

By the time Guardado exited, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire was almost out of options; as has happened so often this season, the manager was handicapped by an ineffective outing from his starter, in this case Rick Reed, who lasted just four innings. Enter, then, reliever Jack Cressend, the sparest of spare parts in the Twins' overworked bullpen. When Cressend and his 7.58 ERA came on in the 11th, Twins fans could be forgiven if confidence flagged; under the most harmless of situations this season, Cressend has seemed like he was pitching on fumes. Second baseman Alfonso Soriano, the Yankees' latest emerging star, greeted Cressend with a single, and Derek Jeter sacrificed him to second. Bernie Williams, who had already homered from both sides of the plate, was then intentionally walked. The next batter, Giambi, grounded out to second, advancing both runners. Catcher Jorge Posada was also intentionally walked, loading the bases with two out. Robin Ventura grounded out to second to end the inning.

Yankee closer Mariano Rivera retired the Twins in order in the top of the 12th, and Cressend was sent out for his second inning of work. It was after midnight in the Bronx. Once again Cressend pitched himself into trouble, walking leadoff hitter Enrique Wilson and giving up a broken-bat single to Shane Spencer. But miraculously, he once more managed to work his way out of the jam without allowing a run.

The Twins wasted a Denny Hocking leadoff single to start the 13th, when Jacque Jones failed on a sacrifice attempt and bunted into a fielder's choice to pitcher Sterling Hitchcock.

The bottom of the 13th featured two more hits and two walks (including yet another intentional pass, this one to Ventura), but Cressend, who again left the bases loaded, emerged unscathed as an incredible relay from Hunter to Hocking to catcher A.J. Pierskyski nailed Giambi, who was attempting to score on Posada's double. Cressend departed with a truly heroic and unsightly line: three innings pitched, 64 pitches, four hits, five walks, zero strikeouts, zero runs.

Casey Blake, who was recently called up to fill in at third base for the injured Corey Koskie, fell behind Hitchcock 0-2 to lead off the 14th but managed to work the count full, foul off a bunch of pitches, and eventually draw a walk. Brian Buchanan then beat out an infield chopper that third baseman Wilson threw away to allow Blake to reach third. Bobby Kielty, who already had three hits on the night, lashed a base hit through the middle of the drawn-in infield to drive in the go-ahead run. Then the Twins again failed to execute the sacrifice bunt, with Jay Canizaro bunting back to Hitchcock, who forced Buchanan at second. Pierzynski followed with a fly to left for the second out, after which Hocking and Jones lashed successive RBI singles to seemingly break the game open. (Given his struggles against left-handed pitching, Jones's single off lefty Hitchcock seemed an especially good omen.)

When Cristian Guzman finally grounded to third for the final out, the Twins' three-run lead was in the hands of Mike Trombley. The last pitcher left in the bullpen, Trombley had only been with the team for three days, having signed on for a second tour of duty with the Twins after being cut loose by the Dodgers.

The poor bastard. In the falling rain at Yankee Stadium, with the clock inching toward 1:00 a.m., Trombley retired only one batter amid singles by Spencer and Jeter, a walk to Williams, and the grand slam by Giambi.

In Trombley's defense, it was his fourth straight night of work, and there were plenty of other goats in what sure felt like a pivotal game. The Twins' failure to execute the fundamentals of the game continue to haunt them, and a number of missed chances were lost in the sheer drama and welter of statistics of this particular game. Besides those two failed sacrifice bunts--inexcusable, particularly from guys like Canizaro and Jones--the Twins committed two errors and stranded 11 runners. Torii Hunter was thrown out at third for the final out of the sixth, snuffing the Twins' big rally and violating one of the cardinal rules of baseball. There has also already been too much talk this year of missed signs, which may partially explain manager Ron Gardenhire's apparent reluctance to utilize the hit and run, one of former skipper Tom Kelly's favorite and most effective strategies.

Maybe, as some have suggested, Friday's heartbreak will build character down the road. I'd say the team has already shown plenty of character. They've also shown that on most nights in the major leagues, character alone won't win games. You probably shouldn't read too much into the fact that the Twins followed up Friday's mishap with two more losses to the Yankees, but at some point this team is going to have to get its starting pitching going and find a way to get some of the walking wounded back into the lineup. In a hurry. Until then, we may have to settle for more nights of plucky and entertaining heartbreak.


Brad Zellar goes Yard every Tuesday morning--and perhaps more often--for as long as he (and the Twins) are up to it.

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