Commentary

A night of missed opportunities

Umpire's bad call not the only reason the Twins lost Game 2 in New York

Originally Published: October 9, 2009
By Jorge Arangure Jr. | ESPN The Magazine

NEW YORK -- The mantra, or perhaps better yet the myth, of the Minnesota Twins is that they take care of the little things to win ballgames. It's believed that Twins players are programmed in the minors -- as if they were robots connected to a master computer -- with a baseball acumen that far exceeds that which is taught by any other team.

For the next couple of days people will debate what actually doomed the poor hapless Twins in their 4-3, 11-inning loss to the Yankees on Friday: the botched call in left field by umpire Phil Cuzzi on Joe Mauer's should-have-been double; the baserunning flub by Carlos Gomez in the fourth inning that cost the Twins a run; closer Joe Nathan's waist-high fastball to Alex Rodriguez; or the inability to score a run with no outs with the bases loaded in the 11th inning.

In reality, it was all of it, the whole messy lot encapsulated by a startling ill regard for all those little things the Twins are supposed to know how to handle.

"They gave us that game, and we didn't take it," Gomez said. "A game like this you never forget. It's like when you're a kid and someone offers you candy and you don't take it. You end up regretting it later."

Reporters rushing into the Twins' clubhouse after the game were stopped in their tracks by Nathan standing at his locker waiting for the onrush. Nathan is a good place to start. While protecting a 3-1 lead in the ninth, the Twins closer gave up a leadoff single to right field to Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira.

At that point, Nathan's plan was to hope Rodriguez would chase breaking balls. He didn't. The count stood at 3-0. Nathan threw a sinker for a strike and then tried to sneak a four-seam fastball past Rodriguez, who instead plastered the pitch over the center-field wall.

"I can't fall behind on a hitter like Alex," Nathan said.

At this point, in the interest of fairness, it's quite important to point out that Nathan's arm could be exhausted. Not in quite some time has his arm been as taxed as it has been in the past 30 days. Nathan pitched on four consecutive days from Sept. 13-16 -- something he had not done since 2007 -- and then pitched on three consecutive days from Oct. 1-3. Last year, he was asked to pitch on three consecutive days twice -- all year. In the first eight days of October, including the playoffs, Nathan has pitched a total of 105 pitches. He threw a total of 200 pitches for the month of September.

"Everything felt good," said Nathan, who late in the season had complained of arm fatigue.

Instead, Nathan chose to focus his frustration on Cuzzi's call. Replays showed that Mauer's fly ball to start the 11th had clearly landed in fair territory, and in fact, the ball appeared to have slightly glanced off left fielder Melky Cabrera's glove. Cuzzi -- who crouched into position with his head angled toward the line in left as the ball struck the ground -- appeared to be in perfect position, but obviously was not. Though Mauer later singled, Jason Kubel's hit to right field may have scored Mauer from second base had the correct call been made.

"You don't know how [Cuzzi] missed it; he was 10 feet from the ball," Nathan said. "Hopefully the umpire realizes he has to do something to get better. That was his job tonight [to make calls down the line]. … There's nothing we can do about a terrible call -- and that's what it was."

[+] EnlargeCarlos Gomez
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonCarlos Gomez's baserunning blunder -- he was tagged out at second base just before Delmon Young touched home plate -- cost the Twins a run in the fourth inning.
Umpire crew chief Tim Tschida admitted that Cuzzi blew the call.

"There's a guy [Cuzzi] sitting over in the umpire's dressing room right now that feels horrible," Tschida said. "Nobody feels worse than the umpire."

The logical expectation would be to think that all the Twins would have immediately clamored for instant replay -- only Nathan said, "unfortunately there's no red flag there to call for instant replay" -- but most of the team was remarkably undisturbed about the call. Mauer said he did not see the replay and was in no hurry to do so. He admitted that umpires can make mistakes.

"You can't change it," Mauer said.

Realistically, players argued, the Twins should have scored a run anyway since they had the bases loaded with no outs. Instead, the next three Twins were retired on just five pitches -- a Twins no-no.

"I'd hate to see a day with no umpires where balls and strikes are called on the scoreboard," Twins infielder Nick Punto said. "It's not for me."

More damning for the Twins was Gomez's baserunning blunder. With Delmon Young on second, and Gomez on first, third baseman Matt Tolbert struck a single to right fielder Nick Swisher. Young dashed around third and began trotting home. Gomez saw Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter head toward second base. Normally, Gomez figured, Jeter would be headed toward closer to third if the ball was headed home.

"But Jeter was going behind me, so to me it seemed obvious he was going to throw to third base," Gomez said. "I was going to continue running because I wanted to be aggressive and because I know that Swisher very often overthrows the cutoff man."

But when Gomez did not see the ball head toward third, he stopped in an effort to get back to second base. He slipped and Jeter tagged him easily -- moments before Young had reached home. Gomez said he didn't attempt to get in a rundown because he had no clue that Young had not scored. Ultimately an extra run would have helped Nathan in the ninth.

"I don't make any excuses about it," Gomez said. "I made a bad mistake."

He was not the only one.

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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