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09/29/09 5:38 PM ET

Twins close gap, beat Tigers in extras

Span's late-inning heroics move club one behind Detroit

DETROIT -- Monday's rainout didn't change anything about the Twins' focus for their critical four-game series with the Tigers.

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire had said time and again that the first game of this make-or-break series with the Tigers was going to be the most important contest of their season.

And on Tuesday afternoon in the first game of a doubleheader with the Tigers, the Twins played like it indeed was the most important one.

Nick Blackburn delivered a start reminiscent of his game No. 163 performance from last season, Denard Span made a game-saving catch in right field in the bottom of the ninth and the club managed to bounce back offensively the inning after a unsuccessful suicide squeeze to score two runs and pull off a thrilling 3-2 victory over the Tigers in 10 innings at Comerica Park.

"It was everything it was built up to be," Gardenhire said. "One heck of a baseball game."

The second game of the twin bill was played at 7 p.m. ET/6 p.m. CT.

The victory moves the Twins within one game of the Tigers in the American League Central and gives them an opportunity to pull even in the race with a victory in the second game of the twin bill.

While the contest had the feeling of a postseason game right from the start, based on the play of both teams, the drama only escalated over the final two innings.

Entering the ninth inning, the two teams were tied at 1, thanks to two quality performances by the starting pitchers, Blackburn and the Tigers rookie Rick Porcello. The two starters -- one with just a little over a year of experience more than the other -- looked like veterans on the mound as they each managed to deliver nearly identical results.

Blackburn found a way to outdo the gem he delivered in his team's 1-0 tie-breaker loss in Chicago last September. This time, despite allowing eight baserunners over the first three innings and giving up leadoff doubles in two of those frames, he managed to hold the Tigers to just one run on six hits over seven innings.

Porcello didn't flinch in the spotlight either, holding the Twins to just one run on seven hits over 6 1/3 innings, as he threw a career-high 111 pitches. He even managed to shut down the Twins' best hitter, getting Joe Mauer to go 0-for-3.

After both bullpens made it through the eighth without allowing a run, things really became heated in the ninth.

Alexi Casilla, making his first plate appearance since Sept. 11, led off the inning with a double to left field. Following a sac bunt that left Casilla on third with one out, the Twins decided to try for the suicide squeeze.

Casilla broke for home plate with the Tigers infield playing in, but Nick Punto popped up the high, inside pitch from reliever Brandon Lyon. The ball went right back to Lyon, stranding Casilla halfway home and allowing Lyon to turn the easy double play by throwing the runner out at third.

"It was like somebody just punched you in the gut," Span said of the play. "The next inning on defense, the crowd got into it. It was one of those feelings like something bad is about to happen."

"It was a let down," Gardenhire said. "But you have to pick yourself back up."

The Twins managed to do just that with a big play in the bottom of the ninth that shifted momentum once again.

Jon Rauch walked the leadoff hitter, Carlos Guillen, to put the potential winning run on base. Pinch-runner Wilkin Ramirez replaced Guillen and moved into scoring position on a sacrifice bunt. And with two outs, it looked like the Tigers might have got the winning hit when Ramon Santiago lined a ball to right field.

But Span, who had just moved from center field to right one inning earlier, sprinted toward the right-field corner to make the catch that sent the game into extras.

"I was prepared to dive if I had to," Span said. "I knew if that ball dropped, the game was over. "

"I knew Span would get to it," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "[Santiago] hit it real hard, but he got it a little bit too high. It wasn't one of those sinking line drives. It was one that kind of kept going. But with that speed [Gardenhire] has at the end of the game in there, that's big time speed. ... You're hoping maybe it took off on him and fooled him a little bit, but he made the play."

Span then helped the carry the momentum over into the 10th by leading off the inning with a single up the middle off Lyon and moving to third on two wild pitches by the Tigers reliever. He then scored on Orlando Cabrera's RBI single to left field. Delmon Young added a sac fly to give the Twins a two-run cushion.

Twins closer Joe Nathan needed both of those runs, as he allowed a leadoff homer to Curtis Granderson in the bottom half of the inning. Carlos Gomez chased down a liner to center by Placido Polanco for the first out, another example of the importance of the Twins speed in the outfield late in contests.

"He closed on that ball as well as anybody," Gardenhire said. "Great instincts and great jump on it. ... He's our best center fielder. And Span, I think his best position is right field."

Nathan then retired the next two batters to capture his 30th save in 30 tries in his career against the Tigers and give the Twins a strong start to reaching their goal -- winning the series.

"We're right where we want to be," Blackburn said. "Obviously, we want to be in first place. But making a move on them right now, that gains a little bit of momentum for us and hopefully tonight we'll go out and do the same thing."

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.