Twins top Royals, keep playoff drive alive

Twins keep playoff drive alive

MINNEAPOLIS -- Nick Punto could barely speak. His voice was just a hoarse whisper from all the screaming he did on Saturday afternoon, trying to will his team to a win that would keep its postseason hopes alive.

Punto was likely not the only one whose voice took a beating. With the curtain raised, a near-capacity crowd at the Metrodome probably felt the same following the Twins' thrilling, 5-4 victory over the Royals, which pulled them into a tie for first place with the Tigers atop the American League Central.

"It's felt like Game 7 for the last two weeks," Punto whispered, describing the run the Twins have been on to keep themselves in playoff contention.

And thanks to yet another boost from Michael Cuddyer, there will be at least one more "Game 7" for the Twins in the regular season.

In the second-to-last game at the Metrodome, the Twins saw their chances of prolonging baseball under the Teflon roof nearly disappear after watching a four-run lead built off Royals ace Zack Greinke erased. But Cuddyer's eighth-inning home run broke a 4-4 tie and left the Twins knowing that the final regular-season contest under the dome would be meaningful.

"I can't imagine having a bigger, more exciting victory than that one," said starter Nick Blackburn. "That just does so much for this team right now. To get a Cy Young contender ... This guy is having a unbelievable season, and to put up four runs on him, I'm at a loss for words. That was impressive."

The win gives the club the opportunity to clinch the AL Central outright on Sunday. A Minnesota victory and a Detroit loss would give the Twins their fifth division title in eight seasons, while losses or wins by both clubs would force a one-game tiebreaker at the Metrodome on Tuesday.

"This is fun," Cuddyer said. "This is what it's all about. When you break Spring Training, you hope to experience this. All 162 games are going to count. You can't go wrong with that."

The Twins had faced the possibility of seeing their postseason hopes come to an end on Saturday night if they couldn't find a way to defeat the Royals with Greinke -- the AL Cy Young favorite -- on the mound.

Facing this unenviable task, the Twins joked before the contest that perhaps their best chance was to pray for runs early to avoid giving Kansas City's ace any sort of lead. Thanks to Blackburn, they didn't have to worry about it.

Pitching on three days' rest for the first time in his Major League career, Blackburn thrived, as he and Greinke were locked in a duel for the first five innings. The game was scoreless through that span, with each pitcher allowing just two hits.

But in the sixth, it was Greinke who faltered first, as the Twins tagged him for four runs. Punto fought through a seven-pitch at-bat to draw a leadoff walk. Two outs later, with Punto standing at third, the crowd was provided a memorable showdown between Greinke and AL MVP candidate Joe Mauer. The catcher won the battle, fighting back from an 0-2 count to line the fifth pitch of the at-bat -- a 96-mph fastball -- into right field for an RBI single and a 1-0 Twins lead.

"[He's] probably the best pitcher we've faced on the mound this year," Mauer said. "Two outs, and I think that's kind of what everybody wanted to see. I was glad. That's the position you want to be in as a player, even if it is a tough spot. That's what you play the game for."

Jason Kubel's ground-rule double to left field followed Mauer's single, then Greinke hit Cuddyer with a pitch to load the bases for Delmon Young, who the night before had hit the first grand slam of his career. The outfielder continued his hot streak, drilling a bases-clearing double into right-center field to give Minnesota a four-run lead.

Greinke was done after the four-run inning, leaving with his ERA at 2.16, still good enough for the Major League lead.

"They elevate their game when the pressure's on the line," Greinke said. "Most teams either stay the same or get tight and try to do more than they can do. Delmon Young, perfect example. I threw a high fastball to him, hoping he'd try to get big and hit a home run with it, and he stayed through it and hit it [to the] opposite field. It just shows how relaxed they stay in pressure situations."

But the Royals weren't done, as they came back to tie it in the eighth off the Twins' bullpen.

Holding that four-run lead to start the seventh, Blackburn gave up a one-out solo home run to Mike Jacobs. He gave up a leadoff double to start the eighth before left-hander Jose Mijares relieved him. Mijares gave up a two-run homer to Alex Gordon, then a single to Brayan Pena before the tying run scored when Mitch Maier hit into a double play off right-hander Jon Rauch, knotting the score at 4. The buzz of the crowd seemed to taper slightly.

"We gave up a lead. It looked like we had our situation set up, and it didn't work out," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "But nothing amazes me anymore. I take that back. This team amazes me because of the courage they're showing."

Perhaps no one has been more tenacious of late than Cuddyer, who has delivered a huge boost to the lineup since former AL MVP Justin Morneau went down to injury on Sept. 12. Cuddyer moved from right field to first base to fill in for Morneau and has responded by hitting .342 with seven homers and 22 RBIs in 19 games there.

That included Cuddyer's eighth-inning homer on Saturday -- his 31st of the year -- which gave the Twins the one-run advantage and earned him the second curtain call in as many days.

The Twins then turned to closer Joe Nathan for the ninth, and with the help of a tremendous sliding catch by Denard Span in right field, Nathan closed out the win with his 47th save of the season.

For the Twins, it was their 15th win in their past 19 contests. As recently as Sept. 6, they sat seven games back of the division lead.

"What we've done and the run that we've had up to this point has been pretty special, pretty fun to watch if you've been following us the whole way," Gardenhire said. "It's pretty fun. These guys just have huge hearts out there. A lot of courage."

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