Tigers Push Twins to Brink of Elimination

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009

DETROIT, Sept. 30 -- There was, in fact, pennant-race baseball being played in Major League Baseball at the tail-end of September, but you had to work to find it. You had to leave the coasts, where most of the participants in the upcoming playoffs were busy backing into their berths, and venture into the heartland, to the symbolic epicenter of the nation's economic recession, where you would find two teams from baseball's weakest division bludgeoning each other for the right to be steamrolled by the New York Yankees in the first round.

Is that too harsh a description of the battle between the Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins for the American League Central crown in the season's final days?

Wait, it gets worse. Because on Wednesday night, within this so-called stretch-run duel, you also had to endure a pitching matchup between a veteran who had been unceremoniously trash-heaped by the Yankees 11 months ago, and a 28-year-old rookie with a career 4.52 ERA -- in the minor leagues.

And because the veteran, Minnesota's Carl Pavano, had a decidedly worse night than the rookie, Detroit's Eddie Bonine, the AL Central race moved decidedly closer to resolution. The Tigers battered Pavano for seven runs in a 7-2 victory, gaining some precious breathing room in baseball's last remaining playoff race of any consequence.

The Tigers now lead the Twins by three games with four to play, and can clinch the Central title with a win in Thursday afternoon's series finale here.

"It's not looking too good, but it's not over," Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire said. "I'm not a great math guy, but I gotta believe tomorrow's a must-win."

One night after playing 19 taut, exquisite innings in a doubleheader, which the teams split, the Twins and Tigers exposed the soft underbellies of their rotations to each other. Immediately, Bonine was slapped for a pair of runs in the top of the first, helped by center fielder Curtis Granderson's misplay of a fly ball, but he managed to complete five shaky innings.

Pavano, on the other hand, barely survived a four-run second inning, highlighted by Brandon Inge's bases-loaded double, then got knocked out in the fifth when Magglio Ordo?ez cleared the bases with another double on a down-the-middle fastball.

"I needed to step up," Pavano said, "and I didn't do the job."

In New York, where Pavano's long injury absences during the course of a four-year, $39.95 million contract earned him the nickname "American Idle," Yankees fans are surely tsk-tsking the Twins for daring to entrust their season to Pavano. But in Minnesota, he was arguably the Twins' most reliable starter down the stretch, and he had never lost to the Tigers in six career starts against them.

As he took the ball from Pavano in the fifth, Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire grabbed his arm and said, "I'd take my chances with you in that situation every time."

"I'm pretty happy," Gardenhire later said of Pavano, "having that guy on my ballclub."

Even if it ultimately falls short, the Twins' improbable run has been an amazing creation, worthy of a moment of respect before we move on to the playoffs.

On Sept. 6, they were seven games back. A week later, they lost cleanup hitter Justin Morneau for the season to an injury. That the Twins chose that exact moment to begin an 11-1 stretch that thrust them into contention speaks to their fighter's heart, their manager's skill and the beautiful vagaries of baseball.

And the fact it's all on the verge of a wretched end speaks to the Tigers' superior money and talent, the limitations on heart and -- just maybe -- the folly of placing your season's fragile hopes in the hands of Carl Pavano.

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