When appropriate, Big League Stew reviews key decisions during the pennant race to see if the right one was made.
The Turning Point: Fighting for the last open playoff spot, the Minnesota Twins found themselves locked in a scoreless tie in the sixth inning against the Kansas City Royals. Minnesota's Nick Punto(notes) stood at third base with two outs, and leading MVP candidate Joe Mauer(notes) stood in the batter's box against leading Cy Young candidate Zack Greinke(notes). Royals manager Trey Hillman opted to let Greinke pitch to Mauer, setting up a dream confrontation against the league's most dangerous hitter. Mauer won the clash, lining an elevated 1-2 fastball into right field for an RBI single. The Twins would go on to win 5-4 and climb into a first-place tie with the Tigers, who lost 5-1 to the White Sox.
Pitch to Mauer: Greinke has been the best pitcher in the majors this season, so Hillman should let his ace go after Mauer, who came in with weak career numbers (.526 OPS) against him. Mauer, who walked in the first inning and flied out in the fourth, also had a .192 batting average against Greinke. Plus, Kubel (.296 batting average overall) is a tough out himself. And the Royals aren't in the pennant race, anyway, so why not take a chance and give the fans some good theater.
Pitch around him: While the intentional walk can be one of the more overused moves by major league managers, this scenario obviously screamed — screamed — "Put him on!" If there's one guy in the Twins lineup to avoid, it's Mauer. He's having one of the most unstoppable seasons in recent history, leading the league in batting, on-base and slugging. Of course you take your chances with Jason Kubel, or anybody this side of Albert Pujols(notes). And it's not true the Royals are out of contention. They represent the Tigers in a sense and should give it their best. That goes for effort and tactics.
Hindsight is 20/20: While Mauer's hit put the first run on the board, the Twins piled on later in the inning, taking a 4-0 lead thanks to Delmon Young's(notes) three-run double that outfielder Mark Teahen(notes) misplayed. The Royals' offense also got to Nick Blackburn(notes) and Minnesota's bullpen and the Twins needed Cuddyer to hit a solo homer in the bottom of the eighth to take back the lead. So there was much more to the game than simply Greinke vs. Mauer. However, the lost confrontation with Mauer seemed to distract Greinke, who said he had become overconfident with his fastball. Cy Young voters on the fence might take it out on Greinke — whose ERA rose to 2.16
2.44 — and that would be a shame.
• "It was Cy Young against MVP. That makes for great drama." — Cuddyer
• "That's what everyone wanted to see. I was glad. That's the position you want to be in as a player, even if it is a tough spot. That's what you play the game for." — Mauer
• "Zack's smart enough to do what he needs to do right there. After seeing the first pitch, he wanted to go right after him. I didn't have any reservations about him facing Joe Mauer." — Hillman
• "I didn't want to give him a pitch to hit. I was going to be real fine with everything, and he fouled off a really good slider, took another really good slider and maybe I shouldn't have tried to throw a fastball by him. Maybe I should have thrown it for a ball and taken my chances with Kubel, because Mauer is who he is. But throughout the game, my fastball was getting by guys, so I probably was overconfident with him at the time." — Greinke
Stew Verdict: Greinke vs. Mauer was one of the season's great moments — and it never should have happened. Hillman should never let Mauer swing the bat there. That Greinke had contained Mauer before is relevant only because the odds improved in Mauer's favor with each pitch he saw. Twins connoisseur @Aaron Gleeman noted there's no way KC pitches to Mauer if the Royals are in a pennant race. Ha! The Royals in a pennant race! Not soon with managing like that. The Twins and Tigers obviously both need help to win the AL Central and Hillman gladly threw his support behind the Twinkies.