MINNEAPOLIS – When the Minnesota Twins had finally taken the American League Central, when they'd beaten the Detroit Tigers, 6-5, in the extra innings of the season's extra game, when they had rushed out to mob a pinch-hitter batting .198, when they hugged a pitcher who just earned his first career victory, when the impossible became popped corks, a familiar song blared through the Metrodome.
"New York, New York."
The Twins had just blown through eight pitchers. They were spent emotionally from what everyone was calling the greatest game they'd ever played. They had an AL Division Series date with the Yankees, in the Bronx, in about 21 hours. Yet there was an unmistakable message they wanted to send.
"We're not afraid," manager Ron Gardenhire said.
Maybe it was the champagne talking. Maybe it was the high of winning a classic 4-hour, 37 minute, 12-inning, back and forth, up and down, big play after big play battle to keep their season alive.
Maybe it was just the feeling that comes with living on house money – the Twins were seven games back of Detroit in early September, three down with four games to play last week.
Maybe it's the 17-4 tear they're on.
"Remember the Rockies in 07?" Keppel said. "Let's go take on the Yankees."
Let's go take on the Yankees? From Bobby Keppel? Oh yeah, the Twins are that confident. At 27, Keppel thought he'd be retired by now because, quite frankly, he didn't think he was big league material. No one else did either.
"I had a 5.99 [ERA] in [the Pacific Coast League] last year," he said.
In the dead of last winter he came to an empty Metrodome and auditioned for Twins coach Rick Anderson. He was signed as a minor league free agent, about as low as it gets. He got called up during the summer.
When Gardenhire ran through most of his staff – "We kept sending guys down and putting spikes on" – Keppel was again on the mound, only this time a record crowd of 55,408 was screaming at him. He promptly loaded the bases, a self-inflicted one-out jam in the 12th with no one warming up to save him.
He threw a sinker that brushed Brandon Inge's(notes) shirt but was missed by umpire Randy Marsh. Upon almost forcing home the potential season-ending run on a hit batsman, Keppel didn't panic. He got philosophical.
"There's a lot of ways to get outs with the bases loaded," he reasoned.
He got the second out thanks, in part, to the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera(notes), who was running from third base. Last Friday night, in the middle of the playoff race, Cabrera got so drunk he wound up in police custody and then likely played buzzed on Saturday, when he was hitless and left six runners on base.
So he did what you might expect. When Inge hit a chopper to second, Cabrera got a slow jump, watched the play instead of running hard and was forced out at the plate.
Hey, no need to go all out; it's only the season on the line.
"Let's see, how many days have I been in the big leagues?" Keppel said. "One-hundred and four? This is my first win. Yeah, it's the most pressure."
"The high school state championship was big, too."
These are the Twins, laughing in the face of all reason. They never should've gotten to game 163. Their stadium, the Metrodome, was supposed to close for baseball two days ago.
Then they played a game with just about every wild baseball play imaginable – pickoffs, diving catches, multiple lead changes. Heck, Casilla himself, brought in as a pinch-runner, was trying to score the winning run in the 10th when he was thrown out at the plate from left field after taking too long tagging up.
He went from potential goat to hero when, in the 12th, he came to the plate with two on and knocked home the division winner.
So you can look at Minnesota's worn-out arms, wonder about their quick turnaround and question just how much booze they drank on the flight to New York. But don't doubt their intentions.
"We plan on going in there and trying to find a way to beat them," Gardenhire said. "We can play with anybody. We're playing pretty good baseball."
Even before you consider fatigue and a lack of prep time, the numbers don't add up for the Twins. The Yankees won 103 games, 16 more than Minnesota. That includes New York's 7-0 sweep of the season series.
Minnesota doesn't care. This isn't talk. They believe it.
"No one gave us a chance to win this division the last month either," closer Joe Nathan(notes) said. "I can guarantee you, you're not going to find anyone, when we were seven games back, that thought we'd be where we are right now."
Gardenhire doesn't even consider the seven losses to New York relevant since most were close games.
"We were there earlier and we lost three on walkoffs and one in the eighth inning," he said.
In Gardenhire's state of euphoria, this seemed like a good thing. You can't blame him. His Twins earned their confidence, created their own momentum and have no reason to roll over fearing the big city.
"We know we're a different team now," Nathan said.
Start spreading the news … the Twins actually think they're going to win this thing.
- Bobby Keppel
- Ron Gardenhire