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Before we get to the gripping coverage of the Minnesota Twins’ utter collapse, a plug: Smile Politely is calling all baseball fans to join your favorite SP baseball columnists Sunday, September 22 21, at the Tumble Inn (302 S. Neil St., Champaign) to watch the final Cubs-Cardinals tilt of 2008 (barring a miraculous wild-card run by the Redbirds). It’s a 1 p.m. game, so come on out and join the fun. The White Sox will also be simultaneously engaging in a titanic struggle with the Royals, so South Side fans are also more than welcome.

The Twins may still hang around the Sox to the very end, and hell, with three head-to-head games remaining at the Metrodome, they could certainly still win the division, but last night’s game, a 12-9 loss to the Indians in 11 innings, certainly felt like a gut-wrenching last chance blown.

With Francisco Liriano on the hill and a two-game losing streak in tow, the Twins absolutely had to win that game. However, there have been two consistent negative themes to this season: first, when faced with a must-win game on the road, Minnesota often shrinks from the challenge, whether they’re facing the Red Sox, the Royals, or in this case, the third-place Indians; second, even when they have a rare late-inning lead to protect in a hostile environment, their bullpen often finds a way to implode at the most inopportune times.

From the beginning, the Twins looked like they were going to fade quietly away once again. Minnesota fell behind 4-1 early on, and that deficit grew to 8-1 by the middle innings. Normally, when the Twins don’t hit early, they don’t hit late, either, but that wasn’t the case last night. Helped by the control woes of the Indians’ bullpen, the Twins charged back, taking a 9-8 lead in the top of the eighth inning and positioning themselves perfectly for their shutdown setup man to take care of business against the top of Cleveland’s order.

The only problem, of course, is that the Twins have no reliable setup man. In years past the eighth inning was Juan Rincon’s personal playground, but he was bombed early and often this season, was released, and is currently languishing at the back end of the Indians’ pen. Pat Neshek had excellent success in his debut last year as the seventh inning stopper, and got off to a great start this season in the eighth inning role, but he blew out his elbow in May and won’t be back until 2009. So, last night, this high-leverage responsibility fell to Everyday Eddie Guardado. Had this been 2002, I would have felt only slightly apprehensive, but occurring as it were in 2008, there was little doubt that it would end badly. Sure enough, Grady Sizemore hit a solo shot high off the right field foul pole to tie the game at nine apiece, which is where things stood heading into the bottom of the eleventh.

Ron Gardenhire finally saw fit to bring closer Joe Nathan into the game, which normally would be a guarantee that the Indians would be efficiently held in check for the inning or two that he was called upon to pitch. However, after having an absolutely brilliant first four months of the season, Nathan appears to have hit a wall since mid-August. Despite Gardenhire’s extremely careful usage of Nathan – bordering on underuse, as others have pointed out – the big guy has been getting rocked of late, and last night was no different. After a solid single and a walk started the inning, Nathan surrendered a three-run, walkoff job to Victor Martinez. There really weren’t even that many dramatic moments leading up to it, just a couple of quick baserunners and then, boom, see you tomorrow afternoon.

To be quite honest, I expected to have this moment months ago, the moment where I realized that the Twins had screwed up one too many times to expect to be able to pull themselves out of the hole they had dug for themselves. So, in a sense, it’s been a bonus to watch meaningful baseball games through August and September. But it’s always tough, once a team sucks you in, to be satisfied with being left out of the postseason, and so it’s kind of a bummer right now, but we’ll see what happens over the next eleven days.