The Minnesota Twins, three games ago hanging on by a thread in the American League Central race, left the Metrodome on Thursday night in first place and in charge of their own postseason destiny. Three straight victories over the Chicago White Sox had turned the course of their season.
The final win on Thursday night was the biggest, the best, the most dramatic of the lot. The 7-6, 10-inning victory was also a tribute to everything that this club does well.
The Twins were down, 6-1, in the fourth inning, seemingly out for the night. A loss here would have left them 1 1/2 games behind the Sox with three games left. But this is a team whose best characteristic might be relentless effort. Speed, timely hitting, defense, more pitching depth than most, these are all Twins' attributes, too. But the relentless effort was mandatory on this, the most important night of the season.
In the dugout, manager Ron Gardenhire knew that all was not lost, just by listening to his players.
"If you just hear them in the dugout, they're rooting for each other, cheering for each other, there's a lot of smack-talking on each other," Gardenhire said. "I'll tell you what: It's a fun place to be, in that dugout, listening to all of it, being a part of it.
"When we got down, there was no quit in it."
While the bullpen held the fort, the Twins with the bats chipped away, with two runs in their half of the fourth, one in the sixth, two to tie in the eighth, and the winner in the 10th, Alexi Casilla singling in Nick Punto.
The rallies in the fourth, sixth and eighth all featured the blazing speed of center fielder Carlos Gomez, who finished the night with four hits, including two triples and a double. If the White Sox reflect on this game, they'll have nightmare visions of Gomez -- a swing and a blur, and a Minnesota run or two somewhere in the mix.
How fast is Gomez? Almost as fast as he thinks he is: "When I hit a ball in the gap," he says, "I don't think triple, I think home run."
The Johan Santana trade becomes ever more understandable with this sort of performance and this sort of approach. Gomez is not shooting for slightly above average. Reaching for the Superman shirt he keeps handy in his locker, Gomez explains:
"This is why I wear this shirt. I try to be the best that I can every day."
The rest of the Twins do not have Superman shirts. They should probably have "The Little Engine That Could" shirts. They think they can, they think they can, even when everybody else has written them off.
This game, this series, this entire season stands as a tribute to the Twins' wall-to-wall perseverance. The starting pitching was much too young, there wouldn't be enough power, blah, blah, blah. The pitching matured. Don't worry about the hitting -- Joe Mauer is winning his second batting title, Justin Morneau leads the AL in RBIs, and the whole group can hit with runners in scoring position. Beyond that, the Twins are solid defensively, sometimes spectacular. They are not faster than a speeding bullet, but they are much faster than the average big league baseball team. And they absolutely do not know how to wave the white flag of surrender.
"That's just a part of who we are," Gardenhire said. "We talk about it all the time, taking advantage. Like Torii Hunter always brought in the 'hyena effect.' Never back away, keeping attacking, and chew 'em up with the hyena attack.
"We talk about that. Keep playing, keep going after it, keep running around, don't be afraid to make mistakes. We're going to screw up a few times on the bases and miss a play here and there, but you have to keep attacking. You can't back away from situations. These guys do a pretty good job of that."
This is not a push-button operation. There have been issues and problems and ups and downs.
"I'm probably as mentally worn out as I've ever been at the end of the season," Gardenhire said. "I still love coming to the ballpark, but I've found myself laying awake late at night way too many times, trying to figure out how we'll get this thing done tomorrow. That's because it is a whole different ballclub. But it's fun to come to the ballpark every day and try to figure it out."
There was a Game No. 162 feeling to the victory on Thursday night. How could something this dramatic, played before a crowd of 43,601, that was as relentless as the team it was supporting, how could this not be culmination of the season? But that's the next issue for the Twins, the matter of the three remaining games against the Kansas City Royals this weekend. For a team specializing in perseverance, a premature celebration would be completely out of character.
"You don't, by any means, want to say, 'Well, we're happy that we got here, we ought to be proud of ourselves,'" Gardenhire said. "That's not the way we feel. We set out on a mission in Spring Training, to get to the playoffs, win our division and get to the playoffs. That's our mission, and this team feels that we can do this thing. And that's all that matters right now. It's all on us now.
"We're proud of where we're at, but we don't feel like we're finished, you know what I'm saying? We want to win our division and get in the playoffs. But am I proud of this ballclub and the way they've battled and stayed after it? Absolutely, because that's what they've done, they've really battled hard. They've had plenty of opportunities to fold and not show up and that just doesn't happen."
A lot of managers talk like that. But Ron Gardenhire has a team that actually plays like that. The Twins came into this series down, but never out. There was more of the same on Thursday night.
Needing a sweep to have a realistic shot at the postseason, the Twins made it happen. It was unlikely, it was improbable, but like their success this season, they never quit believing that it could happen, and they never stopped trying to make it happen.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.