10/06/09 12:00 AM EST
One game: Winner goes on, loser goes home
Tigers, Twins poised to battle it out for AL Central crown
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
Nine innings (or more) to decide whether the Detroit Tigers or Minnesota Twins go on to pursue a World Series trophy or go home and watch Major League Baseball's four Division Series on TBS with the rest of us.
The 28th and final season of baseball in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, home to World Series champions in 1987 and 1991, home to Kirby Puckett's glorious career, home to Homer Hankies, home to baseball for at least one more night.
A 163rd game on the eve of the postseason, the unprecedented third consecutive year in which a play-in tiebreaker has been necessitated, a "whiteout" crowd wearing mostly white and filling every space after that mad rush for online tickets, an end and a beginning.
"Every pitch will be a roar," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "After 162 games, we are in first place, and I think that's probably more than most people expected. I'm not trying to indicate that we're satisfied. I'm just saying that at the beginning of the season, I can't remember anybody picking us to win the division. And we haven't, but we are in first place after 162 games."
"Probably 99 percent of the people of Minnesota thought we had no chance," said Twins closer Joe Nathan, who would match Brian Fuentes of the Angels for the Major League saves lead if he can make No. 48 be a clincher. "To be where we are, it's a good feeling. It's exciting. We're looking forward to seeing what the atmosphere will be like on Tuesday."
Everyone is watching, following the only silent day of the season other than the day after the All-Star Game. At 5:07 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Tigers leadoff man Curtis Granderson will step to the plate to face Twins starting pitcher Scott Baker. The winner of this 19th season meeting between the clubs will be declared 2009 American League Central champions.
WINNERS TAKE ALL
|Major League Baseball is the only major sports league that decides whether teams that are tied for a single playoff berth advance or go home the old-fashioned way: on the field. Other leagues, such as the NFL, NBA and NHL, deploy a series of statistical tiebreakers, such as head-to-head matchups and divisional records. Baseball's on-the-field solution has led to some of the sport's most memorable games.
Four tiebreaker games were to decide division titles, three were for the Wild Card and one was for the World Series.
|Sept. 30, 2008||AL Central||White Sox 1, Twins 0|
|Oct. 1, 2007||NL Wild Card||Rockies 9, Padres 8, 13 innings|
|Oct. 4, 1999||NL Wild Card||Mets 5, Reds 0|
|Sept. 28, 1998||NL Wild Card||Cubs 5, Giants 3|
|Oct. 2, 1995||AL West||Mariners 9, Angels 1|
|Oct. 6, 1980||NL West||Astros 7, Dodgers 1|
|Oct. 2, 1978||AL East||Yankees 5, Red Sox 4|
|Oct. 4, 1948||AL pennant||Indians 8, Red Sox 3|
As late as one hour after the final out, the Yankees, by virtue of their Major League-best record, will announce whether they accept ALDS "A" -- the eight-day (including off-days) series that starts Wednesday -- or ALDS "B," the seven-day series beginning Thursday. The winner of this tiebreaker will be the visiting team in the opener.
If the Yankees choose schedule "A," the series will open at 6:07 p.m. ET on Wednesday following the first playoff game between the Rockies and Phillies at Citizens Bank Park at 2:37 p.m. The Cardinals will open against the Dodgers in Los Angeles at 9:37 p.m. that night.
The Red Sox and Angels also are eagerly awaiting the outcome of this tiebreaker and the Yankees' decision. If the Yankees choose schedule "A," the Red Sox-Angels series is "B" and will begin at 9:37 p.m. on Thursday.
"It doesn't really matter to us, but at the same time, it will be fun baseball to watch," Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said. "Once we figure out who we're going to play, then we'll start going to work."
Added his teammate Alex Rodriguez: "We'll be watching after practice. It should be interesting. Like I've said, be careful what you ask for. I think we're going to be ready to play no matter who it is."
The Twins have home-field advantage in the tiebreaker game by virtue of winning the season series. A coin flip would have decided the site under the tiebreaker procedures of previous years, but this time it is based simply on which team had the best record in the first 18 meetings (the Twins were 11-7).
The Twins are 48-33 at home this season, and the Tigers are 35-46 on the road, the worst road record among the nine teams that are still alive. Detroit's starter, rookie Rick Porcello, is 0-2 with a 6.30 ERA in two starts at the Metrodome.
Will it matter? Maybe, maybe not. Recent history shows that this tiebreaker business is intense and can go down to the wire. In 2007, the Rockies finally prevailed when, with the score tied at 8 in the bottom of the 13th inning, Jamey Carroll flied out to right field off Padres closer Trevor Hoffman, and Matt Holliday tagged up from third and barely slid under the tag of San Diego catcher Michael Barrett to clinch the NL Wild Card spot.
Last year, John Danks threw eight scoreless innings, Ken Griffey Jr. threw out Michael Cuddyer of these same Twins trying to score, Jim Thome homered for the only run, Brian Anderson made an incredible diving catch and the White Sox advanced, with much relief.
Those Rockies sailed from their tiebreaker victory right into their first World Series. Those White Sox were dispatched in four games by Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton and the upstart Rays in the ALDS. Who will win this tiebreaker, and how will that team fare against the team with baseball's best record? Everyone is watching. Everyone is waiting to get this postseason party started.
"There's no way to go around the fact that we're playing in the Dome and not in Detroit," said Baker, one of the Twins' hottest second-half pitchers and winner of the last game between these two teams, last Thursday in Detroit. "I think we've seen in the past how well we play in front of our fans and how much it can affect the outcome of the game. We're all very excited to be here at the Dome."
Every outgoing Major League Baseball stadium deserves a ceremonial sendoff, and the Metrodome is definitely getting its moment. "Monday Night Football" was staged there this week, a marquee matchup of rivals featuring Vikings quarterback Brett Favre against his longtime former team, the Packers. That game could not be moved for obvious reasons, so the Tigers-Twins tiebreaker, which normally would have been played on Monday, was moved to Tuesday.
Target Field looms outside the Metrodome, just waiting. If you go to the Twins' Web site, you will see the Countdown to Opening Day at Target Field prominently displayed. It will be a long winter before that scheduled debut against Boston on April 12, and for now it is a question of whether the Metrodome will house baseball beyond this tiebreaker or whether it will leave Tropicana Field as the only remaining fixed-dome structure in the Majors.
The Twins enter the tiebreaker having won 16 of their past 20 games, but they know they can't rely on that success against the Tigers at the Dome. This will be survival of the fittest, baseball-style. It is the sport that settles such ties mano-a-mano, on the field. For that reason, you will just have to wait to find out the final batting average of Twins catcher Joe Mauer, who will win the Major League title.
"We've got a lot of confidence, but at the same time, we're not going to go take it for granted," said Cuddyer. "We're going to face a tough team in Detroit. We're going to face a tough pitcher. We've got our work cut out for us."
New York's CC Sabathia, an AL Cy Young Award candidate after winning 19 games, is waiting to face the survivor of this game.
Target Field is waiting to be the Twins' new home.
Tigers fans are waiting for another chance for their team to win their first World Series since 1984.
Seven teams that clinched postseason berths are waiting to get this thing started.
Baseball fans have waited 162 games for a postseason, and now they will watch on TBS and at the ballpark to see the postseason field set at last.
It comes down to this.
One more game.
Winner advances, loser goes home.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.