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Flashback: Detroit Tigers vs. Minnesota Twins in 2009’s “Game 163”

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Around here, when you say “Game 163,” everyone knows what game you’re talking about: this one.

Minnesota Twins vs Detroit Tigers, 2009 AL Central Tiebreaker Set Number: X83060 TK1 R1 F228

I love this game.

This may seem strange because I’ve been a Tiger fan all my life, and the Tigers lost this game to a hated division rival. This bounced Detroit out of the playoffs in 2009, and while the Tigers probably would’ve faced a similar fate the Twins did in the Division Series against the eventual-champion Yankees (they got swept in three games), if you’re in the playoffs you’ve got a shot.

Let’s see how it all got to a Game 163 first.

The Regular Season

In 2008 the Tigers had a disappointing 74-88 record, two seasons removed from one of the more unlikely World Series appearances in our lifetimes. In the offseason they cut shortstop Édgar Rentería loose, picked up catcher Gerald Laird, acquired right-handed starter Edwin Jackson in a trade, picked up right-handed reliever Brandon Lyon, and just before Opening Day, outfielder Gary Sheffield was released.

Miguel Cabrera had a monster season as the everyday first baseman in 2009, slashing .324/.396/.547 for an OPS of .942 in his second full season in Detroit. Plácido Polanco and Brandon Inge had decent seasons in the field and at the plate, and Adam Everett... well, he was the shortstop.

The outfield was anchored by Curtis Granderson in center, an aging Magglio Ordóñez in right (this would be the last season he’d play over 100 games), and Ryan Raburn — much as we enjoy making fun of fly balls hitting him on the head and going over the fence — had an OPS of .891 in almost 300 plate appearances.

The moundsmen were led by Justin Verlander: he’d lead the league in wins (19), games started (35), innings pitched (240), strikeouts (269), and strikeouts per nine innings (10.1). He’d finish third in Cy Young voting behind Zack Greinke and Felix Hernandez; normally I’d be outraged by such a thing, but go ahead and look up Greinke’s 2009 stats. You’ll see what I mean.

Jackson had himself a decent year, too (13-9, 3.62 ERA in 214 innings), and the season would feature the emergence of “Kid Rick” Porcello, who was actually a 20-year-old kid at the time; he’d start 31 games and sport a 14-9 record with a 3.96 ERA.

Fernando Rodney anchored the back end of the bullpen with 37 saves (but an alarmingly high 1.467 WHIP for a closer). Bobby Seay and the aforementioned Lyon made up the amusingly-nicknamed “Seay-Lyon” duo, and Zach Miner was an important swingman, picking up five starts as well.

Meanwhile, manager Jim Leyland smoked a lot of heaters and ate a lot of potato salad in his underwear while talking with reporters after games in his office.

The Division Race

The Tigers spent the first month and a half dancing around the .500 mark, and briefly took first place near the end of April. However, on May 16, with a convincing win over Oakland (featuring an appearance by Joel Zumaya) kicking off a seven-game winning streak, by the end of the month they were four games ahead of the White Sox and 4.5 ahead of the Twins.

By the end of the day on June 25, after a 6-5 win against the Cubs featuring home runs by Ramón Santiago and Ordóñez, with the Seay-Lyon helping out too, the Tigers were five games ahead of Minnesota and had won another seven in a row. However, after a 2-1 loss against Seattle (thanks a lot, newly-acquired Jarrod Washburn), the Tigers ended July 23rd in a virtual tie with the White Sox and 2.5 ahead of the Twins.

However, the next day kicked off a three-day, four-game set against those same White Sox with a doubleheader, which the Tigers swept. They would start August up 1.5 games over Chicago and end it up 3.5 games over the Twins, with the White Sox having fallen out of the race, 6 games back. (Lest you think the Tigers were a juggernaut, they only had the sixth-best record in the American League at that point, with the Angels being the class of the league, led by Chone Figgins playing a stellar third base.)

September

At the start of September, the Tigers didn’t have the biggest lead out there, but at least they were in a good position for the stretch drive. Things were looking up with six straight wins to start September; their biggest division lead of the season, seven games, came on September 6th at the end of a three-game road series in which the Tigers swept the Rays.

At that point Detroit was at 75-61 and the Twins were an even .500 at 68-68. Right as Tigers fans were preparing to count their chickens, Detroit then went on to lose five straight, but they were still up five games on Minnesota.

Now, say what you will about the Tigers blowing a lead. Certainly, many have written such a narrative, and technically they wouldn’t be wrong. But you really have to give the Twins a lot of credit. Starting with an 8-0 win on September 13 against the A’s, Minnesota won their next six games, and after losing the finale of a three-game series against the Tigers on September 20, they came back and won their next five to close the gap to 2 games with a week and a half to go.

The gap was also 2 games at the conclusion of a huge three-game series between the Tigers and Twins in Detroit as September turned into October, but for the season’s final weekend the Twins went home to play the lowly Royals while the Tigers returned to Detroit to play the much-more-respectable White Sox.

The Tigers dropped the first two games of their series against Chicago, 8-0 and 5-1, with Rodney pitching the last inning of the Saturday night game (put a pin in that) on October 3. The Twins, on the other hand, beat Kansas City 10-7 and 5-4, and going into the last day of the regular season the two teams were tied. So, it was conceivable that, if the Twins had won and the Tigers lost, that would’ve just been curtains for the ol’ Detroiters.

Right at this point, allegations against Miguel Cabrera, specifically a domestic dispute on Saturday morning which ended with the slugger in the drunk tank after he came home intoxicated in the early morning hours and an argument with his wife became physical, started to come to the public’s attention. While no charges were ultimately filed, the incident couldn’t have been a great thing to have swirling around a team trying to stay in a playoff position.

The Final Sunday

If you’re going to have someone pitch a must-win game, Verlander isn’t a bad choice. On Sunday, October 4, he pitched into the eighth, giving up three runs. Fortunately, Raburn homered twice in the contest, and Ordoñez added a solo shot off of White Sox starter John Danks. Rodney eventually recorded a four-out save in the 5-3 victory. (Put a pin in that, too.)

Meanwhile, the Twins jumped out to a 7-0 lead by beating up on Luke Hochevar and the rest of the Royals. Carl Pavano gave up four runs in 5 2/3 innings, but Twins’ skipper Ron Gardenhire had a plan: he paraded-out six pitchers for short outings to finish off the game.

The Twins had a bit of an advantage which doesn’t happen anymore: their game started an hour after the Tigers’ game. For the past few seasons, all Sunday afternoon games started at 3:00 pm Eastern time, but that wasn’t the case in 2009. So, while the Tiger game ended at about 3:30 pm EDT, the Twins’ game didn’t end until about 5:15 pm EDT. So, with his game easily in-hand, Gardy could set up his relievers’ workload to his liking.

Because both teams won their Game 162, we’d have a Game 163 on Tuesday. To get here, the Twins went 20-11 from September 1 to this point, a .645 winning percentage. Over that same stretch the Tigers went 17-15, for a .531 pace; not so bad, but you have to give it to the Twins. They played their tails off.

Game 163: Tuesday, October 6, 2009

If you want to watch this game in all its glory and pain, it’s available here on YouTube.

Since this was 2009, the Twins were still playing in the Metrodome. Officially named for former U.S. Senator and Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, it was quite a place. The artificial turf produced prodigious bounces on balls chopped into the ground, and grounders often raced through gaps between infielders. In addition, the color of the roof was remarkably similar to that of your average baseball, causing many visiting fielders not used to this phenomenon to lose sight of the ball in the roof. (The epithet “Twinshit,” pronounced “Twins hit,” or sometimes not pronounced that way, became a saying around here.) Finally, the acoustics of the stadium were such that the noise could be enough to drive anyone batty. Not exactly the most hospitable environment for a visiting team, for sure.

Porcello got the start for the Tigers. He’d had a fine season, for sure, but he was a rookie and this was a tiebreaking game. Many didn’t give him much chance of success, griping about how we’d ended up with a 20-year-old on the mound with the season on the line. Others, buoyed by Porcello’s strong rookie campaign, were more than happy to put their faith in him with Verlander unavailable. How would the youngster hold up?

Minnesota Twins vs Detroit Tigers, 2009 AL Central Tiebreaker Porcello pitches in the dark cave of the Metrodome. (Tom Dahlin/Getty)

Facing Porcello was Scott Baker. He’d had a decent enough year, with a 4.37 ERA (and a 4.08 FIP) over 33 starts, striking out 162 in 200 innings. But with a WHIP of 1.190 that season, he probably wasn’t going to let an inning get away on him. The Tigers would have to grind out the runs to beat them.

There’s another element to all of this, too: the Tigers had gone 7-12 against the Twins that season. And, in the Metrodome, they weren’t looking great: in May they’d been swept there in three games, they’d lost two of three there in early July, and again they lost two of three in Minnesota in mid-September. If you’re keeping track at home, that’s a 2-7 record in the ol’ Land of Ten Thousand Lakes.

I watched this game in a sports bar up the street from my place at the time. I had cable, but my package didn’t include the particular flavour of Rogers Sportsnet that was carrying this game. (An angry phone call to the cable company registered my disdain.) I parked myself at the bar, which was gracious enough to keep at least one TV on this, despite there being a Maple Leafs preseason hockey game that same evening. I was probably wearing a Tigers hat.

The starting lineups for each team are given below:

Isn’t that fun: Delmon Young was playing left field for the Twins. And Joe Mauer was still catching! The pivotal third spot in the Tigers’ order was still being held down by Ordóñez, with Cabrera hitting fourth. Carlos Guillén last played any shortstop at all in 2007; in 2009 he started 42 games in left field, 36 at DH, and a pair at first base (where he’d seen significant action in 2007).

The Early-Going

The first inning was fairly uneventful, as Baker sandwiched a strikeout in between two flyouts. Porcello gave up a two-out double to Mauer, but Jason Kubel popped out weakly to shortstop to strand Mauer.

In the top of the second, the Tigers got things cooking: Cabrera led off with a double to the wall left-center, but Guillén’s ensuing fly ball wasn’t deep enough to advance Cabrera to third. The next batter, Raburn, singled to right; Cabrera had to hold up to see if it was going to fall, so he could only make it to third, but there were runners on the corners with one out. However, Inge lined out to short and Laired popped out to the shortstop in left field, and that was it. (Tigers threatened, but did not score. Classic.) Porcello made short work of the Twins in the bottom of the frame, with a groundout and a pair of swinging strikeouts.

The Tigers got on the board with three runs in the third: Granderson worked a one-out walk, but he was running on a ground ball and stayed out of a double-play groundout. With two outs, Ordóñez plated Granderson with a single to center, and Cabrera silenced the crowd with a two-run home run, blasting an 0-2 pitch over Span’s head and over the centerfield “baggie” fence for a 3-0 lead.

Minnesota Twins vs Detroit Tigers, 2009 AL Central Tiebreaker A young Miguel Cabera swings for the fences. (Tom Dahlin/Getty)

Minnesota would get one of those runs back in the bottom of the third: with two outs and runners on the corners, Porcello tried to pick Span off first. The throw got past Cabrera but hit the Twins’ first base coach so it didn’t go far, but it was far enough for Matt Tolbert, who’d led off with an infield single to third, to race home and make it a 3-1 game.

The Middle Innings

The teams traded 1-2-3 innings in the fourth, and a two-out Polanco single in the fifth did no damage. Through five and a half innings it was still a 3-1 game with both starters on the mound.

With two outs in the bottom of the sixth, Kubel drove a 1-0 offering over the fence in right-center to narrow the gap to 3-2. Porcello stayed in long enough to walk Cuddyer, but Jim Leyland had seen enough at that point, bringing in Zach Miner. He loaded the bases with a single and a hit-by-pitch, but managed to get Tolbert to fly out to center to end the threat.

The Late Innings

Remember what I asked you to keep in mind a little while ago about Gardenhire’s bullpen management? How he gave a bunch of relievers a little bit of work on Sunday, perhaps to keep them fresh? You remember that, yes? Well, here’s where it comes into play.

After Baker walked Inge to start the top of the seventh, Jon Rauch (who had pitched briefly Sunday) got two quick outs. José Mijares, a good young reliever for Minnesota that year (who didn’t pitch on Sunday but had a short outing on Saturday), tried to get the lefty advantage on Granderson, but Grandy punched a single past the second baseman to put two on with two out. In yet another move which wouldn’t be seen today, Mijares only faced one batter before Matt Guerrier (who’d pitched a bit on Friday) retired Polanco on a groundout.

Miner continued on to the bottom of the seventh and gave up a leadoff single to the ever-pesky Punto. After Span struck out, Orlando Cabrera put the Twins ahead 4-3 with a home run to left field. Miner gave up a single to Mauer, then was yanked for Fu-Te Ni who got the dangerous Kubel to fly out to shallow center. Ni only lasted one batter too (fare thee well, LOOGYs), before Leyland called on Lyon, who coaxed a comebacker out of Cuddyer.

The Tigers would knot the game back up at 4 as Ordóñez whacked a 1-0 fastball over the left-field wall to lead off the bottom of the eighth. Guillén got on base with a one-out walk, and Wilkin Ramirez pinch-ran for him. After Guerrier walked Raburn to put runners on first and second with one out, Joe Nathan (who had pitched a bit on Saturday) got Inge to pop out to second and struck out Laird. Nathan had a sensational 2009 in which he saved 47 games and had a fantastic 0.932 WHIP.

Minnesota Twins vs Detroit Tigers, 2009 AL Central Tiebreaker Joe Nathan, later a Tiger, gets the job done. (Tom Dahlin/Getty)

Lyon would stick around for the bottom of the eighth and get a 1-2-3 inning with a pair of groundouts. If you’re keeping track, that’s two straight relief pitchers that Leyland allowed to finish an inning and then start the next. Not exactly a common occurrence even at the time, though we’re seeing greater flexibility in roles again since the advent of the three batter minimum rule.

Following suit though, Gardenhire left Nathan in to face the Tigers in the top of the ninth. Santiago led off with a bunt single to first, narrowly avoiding Nathan’s diving tag attempt, and Adam Everett pinch-ran for him. Everett took third on a Granderson single, and things were looking fantastic for the Tigers at this point. However, Polanco struck out looking and Ordóñez lined to shortstop; Orlando Cabrera threw to first before Granderson could get back, ending the inning.

I’m pretty sure that, sitting at the bar as day turned to evening, I hung my head in resignation. According to software engineer Greg Stoll, the expected number of runs from a first-and-third-with-none-out situation is 1.76. Put another way, there’s about an 85.9% chance that you’re going to score at least one run, and even a 42.47 chance you’re going to score two or more runs. And yet, the Tigers threatened — mightily, even — but did not score.

And so, the bottom of the ninth came around with a chaser of terror. Lyon carried on to start the inning — again, a curious choice, but it was a thing that day, I suppose — and a Punto walk followed by a Span bunt put Punto on second with one out. Stoll’s calculations suggest there’s a 58.6% chance the Twins don’t score here... but, obviously, a 41.4% chance that they do.

Enter Fernando Rodney.

Detroit Tigers v Minnesota Twins Oh, Fernando. Why did Jimmy mistreat you so? (Getty)

He’d pitched 1 1/3 innings on Sunday in a 5-3 win... but hey, it was only 14 pitches, right? However, he’d also thrown 24 pitches in the ninth inning of a 5-1 loss on Saturday night; essentially, Leyland had his closer doing mop-up duty with a tied division race coming down to the wire. I’m not sure that’s a call I’d have made, Jimmy, but then again, the Tigers just did not have many good options.

Orlando Cabrera hit a hot chopper in the third base-shortstop gap. Inge dove, saving the ball from getting past him, looked Punto back to second, and threw to first. If he didn’t make that play, there’s a decent chance Punto scores on that play. Mauer was intentionally walked to make forceouts at any base possible, and it paid off with a Carlos Gomez groundout to shortstop; a toss to second got the Tigers out of the inning. Relief.

The Tenth Inning

Jesse Crain (who had pitched a little on Sunday) took over for Nathan in the tenth. Aubrey Huff, who’d been picked up in a waiver deal in August and done nothing at all, pinch-hit for Ramirez and got plunked on an 0-2 pitch, which just barely grazed his right pant-leg just above the ankle. (Put a pin in that, too.) The unstoppable Don Kelly pinch-ran for him, and with two outs Inge ripped a double into the left-field corner. Gene Lamont windmilled Kelly around third, as he was wont to do, and Kelly beat the relay home to put the Tigers up 5-4. (Mauer stuck his foot out to block the plate without the ball... again, that’s a no-no in today’s game.)

Minnesota Twins vs Detroit Tigers, 2009 AL Central Tiebreaker Kelly scores the go-ahead run in the tenth. (Tom Dahlin/Getty)

Laird grounded out to second to end the inning, but the Tigers could taste the victory, it was so close.

Three outs were needed from the Tigers pitching staff, and Leyland figured he could get them from Rodney. On a 2-2 pitch to leadoff hitter Cuddyer, he fisted a shallow fly ball into short left field. Raburn half-slid to make the catch, and of course it got by him and went all the way to the wall. Granderson chased it down and made a nice throw to third to try and nab Cuddyer but it was late (on a close play, though). Young hit a chopper to short but he still-huffing Cuddyer stayed at third.

Rodney looked gassed (to me, in hindsight, which is always 20/20) — his control was lousy all night, and it took everything he had to keep his fastball speed up — but Leyland stuck with him, even after walking Brendan Harris. The speedy Alexi Casilla pinch-ran for Harris, and Tolbert squeaked a turf-aided chopper between short and second to score Cuddyer and push Casilla to third.

At this point it looked pretty inevitable that the Twins would end things in the tenth: one out, speedy runner on third with the winning run, empty-tank Rodney on the mound. Would Gardenhire squeeze Casilla home? Apparently not, as Punto was clearly swinging away.

But, the baseball gods are funny sometimes. On an 0-2 pitch Punto hit a soft liner to left, which Raburn caught. Casilla hesitated a bit when tagging up and still tried to score, but Raburn’s one-hop throw to Laird nailed Casilla at the plate. (It didn’t look particularly close in real-time; on the replay, though, Casilla almost snuck his right hand in underneath Laird’s tag.) Double play, inning over, we go to the eleventh.

Detroit Tigers v Minnesota Twins Alexi Casilla gets thrown out by Ryan Raburn trying to score the winning run. (Jamie Squire/Getty)

I clearly remember at this point in the game in the bar, the meaningless Leafs game had taken a back seat, and the patrons had become increasingly interested in this game — with good reason. Two unlikely double-plays to end late innings with the game on the line? Bungled plays in the outfield going for triples? Plays at the plate? This game had it all. The guy sitting next to me remarked, “This is a heck of a game.” I remember looking at him with an anguished expression on my face and replying, “It sure is.”

The Eleventh Inning

The Tigers went 1-2-3 in the top of the eleventh, but Gardenhire used three pitchers: Crain stuck around to strike out Everett, Ron Mahay (who’d pitched a bit on Sunday) to strike out Granderson, and Bobby Keppel (who’d pitched a bit on Sunday) got Polanco to line out. If it seems like I’m beating a horse who’d long since expired about this... well, I am. But I feel it was a crucially important part of the strategy, and Leyland, I love the guy and all, but he kept running Rodney out there.

The magic worked in the bottom of the eleventh against the top of the Twins’ order, though: flyout (with a nice sliding catch by Granderson), strikeout, groundout.

The Twelfth Inning

Clete Thomas led off the bottom of the inning with a sharp lineout to center, and Cabrera followed with a walk. Kelly singled to left and took second after the throw to third, the wrong base, didn’t get Cabrera; Raburn was then intentionally walked (on four honest-to-goodness wide ones) to load ‘em up.

And now... Inge and the HBP that wasn’t.

The first pitch from Keppel to Inge was inside. Inge, who enjoyed his apparel on the baggy side of things, turned away from the pitch, and the replay — to my biased eyes, anyway — suggested the ball got his jersey, like it caught Huff’s pants in the tenth. The TBS announcer seemed to agree: “The ball grazed his shirt but he didn’t get the base.”

If the umpire had also seen it that way, Inge would have taken first, Cabrera would have scored, and the Tigers would have been up 6-5 with the bases still loaded and one out. Stoll’s calculations give us 1.56 expected runs in such a situation.

On the 1-2 pitch to Inge, Keppel threw a low fastball that Mauer corralled with the tip of the pocket of his catcher’s mitt; if that had gotten past Mauer, that’s a likely 6-5 lead, too. If nothing else, this game had oodles of occasions in which your stomach did backflips, and this was one of them. Instead, Inge chopped a 2-2 pitch to Punto at second and he made an off-balance throw to home to force out Cabrera by a couple of feet.

Laird was up next, and a low 1-0 pitch nicked Mauer’s glove and got away from him, but didn’t travel far enough for Kelly to score. Just think: if Mauer’s glove was half an inch higher, Kelly scores and it’s 6-5; “game of inches,” indeed. Laird worked the count to 3-1, fouled off the next pitch, but struck out. Even when watching this game on the replay, knowing how it turned out, I still had butterflies. And they say baseball’s boring!

The bottom of the twelfth rolled around, and... yep, Fernando Rodney was still out there, facing leadoff hitter Carlos Gomez. Shockingly, nobody had gotten up in the bullpen to warm up throughout Rodney’s entire appearance; it was going to be his game. Gomez singled past a diving, drawn-in Inge to lead off the inning, and a Cuddyer groundout (which nearly hit the third-base bag) advanced him to second. Young was intentionally walked for forceout purposes, bringing up Casilla, who’d been thrown out trying to score in the tenth. On a 1-1 pitch, Casilla hit a ground ball softly between first and second to Thomas in right, scoring Gomez and ending the game, 6-5 for the Twins.

Detroit Tigers v Minnesota Twins Casilla gets the division-winning hit. (Jamie Squire/Getty)

JT’s Final Thought

I was exhausted just watching this game. I can’t imagine how wrung-out the players were, on both sides. Heck, I’ve gone on a roller-coaster writing this reminiscence, over a dozen years later. In the meantime I’ve gotten married, bought a house, seen Michelangelo's “David,” watched the Tigers four-year reign over the AL Central come and go, and got part of a beer spilled on me in the Wrigley Field bleachers (the guy was nice and bought me a beer to apologize; apology immediately accepted).

No, this game didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped it would. But it had so many twists, so many times it could have gone one way or another, terrible fielding plays, terrific fielding plays, countless second-guessing opportunities, runners getting thrown out at the plate, so many chances to rant against umpires... this game had everything. I love it.

Plus, we all know now what the next few years had in store for the Tigers: several years of American League Central dominance, a core of players including sure-fire Hall of Famers, and a World Series appearance. Let’s face it, a championship wasn’t in the cards for this 2009 team... but if they’d had more playoff experience and a deeper bullpen in this season, would they have fared better in 2012 or, dare I say, 2013?

There’s no way to tell, of course. But it’s a fun mental exercise.

Alright, it may not be “fun,” per se, but in these frigid lockout days, it’s not a bad diversion.