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Twins left to wonder what could have been

Twins' season ends in ALDS

MINNEAPOLIS -- Just five days ago, it was the Twins who were spraying champagne inside their clubhouse as they celebrated an improbable division title.

Minnesota had won 17 of its final 21 regular-season games, including a 12-inning tiebreaker against the Tigers, to earn a trip to the playoffs. And with the Metrodome's clock ticking, the club seemed determined to put together one last magical postseason run for a building that had housed its only two World Series championships -- one in 1987 and another in '91.

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Yet on Sunday night, after staving off elimination so many times over the past three weeks, the Twins just couldn't find a way to do it one more time.

Minnesota's thrilling run came to an end in a 4-1 loss to the Yankees in Game 3 of the American League Division Series, finishing off a series sweep and sending the club packing much earlier than it could have imagined during Tuesday's division celebration.

"Although it was very disappointing again to lose another game where we had our chances, I told them I was very proud of them," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said of his message to the team following the loss. "From everything that they have been through this year, the run that they made to get here and the heart that they showed, they gave us everything they had."

The Twins entered this series with the Yankees as big underdogs, but they'll head into the offseason knowing that they missed plenty of shots to make it a competitive series. Thanks to a myriad of baserunning blunders, bullpen mistakes and the absence of key hits in big situations, the club witnessed yet another three-and-out postseason appearance -- just like it did against the A's in 2006.

Sunday night's loss stung not only for its finality, but also because Game 3 had begun with so much promise, thanks to starter Carl Pavano and Andy Pettitte delivering an unlikely pitchers' duel.

Facing his former team in the postseason for the first time since his four injury-plagued seasons in New York, Pavano looked to be on a mission for both himself and his team. He and Pettitte exchanged zeros through five innings, as they both didn't even allow a fair ball to be hit out of the infield until the fifth.

But in the sixth, it was Pettitte who blinked first. Denard Span hit a two-out single to center and then swiped second base. Pettitte walked Orlando Cabrera, bringing up AL batting champion Joe Mauer, who with his bum hip and all, lined the first pitch through the hole at short for an RBI single to put the Twins up, 1-0.

The lead would be short-lived, as Pavano gave up two solo shots in the seventh.

Alex Rodriguez continued his tremendous Division Series with his second game-tying home run, this one a solo shot to right field. Pavano then set a Twins postseason record by striking out his ninth batter of the evening, Hideki Matsui, but Jorge Posada followed Matsui with a second solo homer on a 1-0 pitch from Pavano to make it a 2-1 Yankees lead.

Pavano was taken out after the seventh, having allowed just the two runs on five hits and delivering the type of outing that Minnesota was hoping to see from him.

"He gave us a great opportunity to win a ballgame," Gardenhire said. "He did what he had to do."

The Twins entered the bottom of the eighth trailing, 2-1, but they had reason to believe that they might find a way to battle back once again thanks to Nick Punto's leadoff double. Yet all of the momentum was shortly erased.

Span followed with a chopper that bounced over the mound for an infield single to shortstop Derek Jeter. But Punto rounded third with his head down, seeing third-base coach Scott Ullger's stop sign too late. Jeter, as he has done so many times in the postseason, made a big play with his calm throw to catcher Jorge Posada.

TWINS GO HOMERLESS
The Twins became the sixth team to go without a home run in a Division Series, with all six teams losing their matchups.
Year Team Opponent Result
1996 Dodgers Braves L, 0-3
1998 Rangers Yankees L, 0-3
2003 Giants Marlins L, 1-3
2006 Padres Cardinals L, 1-3
2007 Angels Red Sox L, 0-3
2009 Twins Yankees L, 0-3

When Punto finally saw Ullger's sign, he slid to stop and tried diving back to third, but Posada's throw to third beat him, and Rodriguez tagged Punto out.

"The crowd noise got me," Punto said. "They were excited to see there wasn't going to be a play on Denard there at first. It's one of those things where I'm kicking myself. ... I had my head down. That was all on me, just a terrible play and a big play in that game. It's hard to swallow."

It was an uncharacteristic miscue for a Minnesota club known for doing the little things, and it was the second successive contest in which a baserunning gaffe had proven costly. But the Twins erased any chances of a ninth-inning comeback when Ron Mahay, Jon Rauch and Jose Mijares each walked a batter to load the bases in the top of the frame. New York tallied two hits off closer Joe Nathan to extend its lead to 4-1.

The baserunning play will stick out, but there are plenty of miscues for the Twins to lament. The club stranded 17 runners in an 11-inning loss in Game 2, a contest that also featured Nathan giving up a game-tying two-run homer to Rodriguez.

"That's the way baseball is, especially the postseason," said Mauer. "Back in 2006, it was the same way. A couple of plays here or there and you are on the short end of the ballgame. It's a good ballclub over there, and you make mistakes and give them extra chances, they will make you pay."

So just five days after celebrating inside this same clubhouse, the Twins were exchanging consoling hugs and handshakes while red eyes were glossed over with tears.

It's certainly not the way that they wanted to see their improbable late-season run come to an end or how they wanted to say goodbye to the Metrodome. The hope was that in the coming days the Twins might be able to really appreciate that magical run, one which came with their cleanup hitter Justin Morneau out of the lineup for over half of September. But for the moment, the loss couldn't do anything but sting.

"Right now, it's kind of hard to see the big picture of the year," Mauer said. "I'll give it a couple weeks and kind of go over what went on and what we did well and what we didn't do well. Right now, it feels like we were just pouring champagne over everybody and celebrating. It's a little frustrating right now."

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

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