Had the Twins not waited until mid-September to shake the shackles of .500, they would be flying to New York on Sunday night to await the start of their American League Division Series opener with the Yankees rather than staying in Minnesota to await the arrival of the Tigers. Had Detroit not sputtered to the finish like an '84 Impala, they would be preparing to unleash Justin Verlander on the Yankees in Game 1 on Wednesday, rather than bemoaning the fact that both he and they have been pushed to the wire, and now, beyond.
For the Twins, it is the second straight season they have been forced to an extra game. It is there, however, that the similarities to 2008 end. Unlike a year ago, when they entered their playoff game with the White Sox in Chicago as relative underdogs, this year's Twins will welcome the reeling Tigers to the Metrodome as decided favorites. In addition to home-field advantage -- no small edge given that home teams have won four of the five one-game playoffs in the wild card era -- the Twins have the momentum from having won 16 of their last 20 games (while the Tigers have skidded to a 10-10 record). They also boast a more balanced and dangerous lineup of late, a better-rested bullpen and a more experienced starting pitcher.
It is this last category that will matter most in Minnesota on Tuesday. Rick Porcello has been as good as a 20-year-old starter could be expected in this, his rookie season, but asking him to pitch his team to the postseason in front of one of the game's most intimidating ballparks may be too much. He will be pitching on six days' rest, which may actually be too much time off. He is 4-2 with a 2.78 ERA this season on five days' rest, which is two runs better than when he only has four days between starts, and a run and a half better than when he has more than five days.
He'll be facing a lineup that has been the best in baseball for the past three weeks. No team has scored more runs than Minnesota since they began their improbable play on September 13, and no team has been getting more significant contributions from a more varied group. In fact, the Twins may well have the AL's MVP for the season, the month of September and the past weekend. Joe Mauer's brilliance has been a season-long sight to behold, but since Justin Morneau was lost for the season in mid-September, Michael Cuddyer has been a more than passable imitation of the 2006 AL MVP winner, batting .342/.415/.671 with seven home runs and 22 RBIs. Over the past week, Delmon Young has displayed the most compelling evidence yet that he has the potential to live up to the considerable hype that has accompanied him throughout his brief major league career, batting .438/.457/.750 with a pair of home runs and a crucial three-run double off probable Cy Young winner Zack Greinke on Saturday.
The Tigers offense, meanwhile, has been relatively toothless. Brandon Inge made the All-Star team for his impressive first-half, but injuries and inconsistency have marred his second half. Magglio Ordonez's home run on Sunday was his first since mid-August, and Miguel Cabrera went just 5-for-26 during the season-ending homestand. All of which will make life more difficult for a team that has struggled to score runs all season, much to the bewilderment of manager Jim Leyland, and lost seven of nine in Minnesota this year.
The Twins will counter Porcello with Scott Baker, who has gone 13-3 since the start of June and emerged as the most reliable starter in Minnesota's once maddeningly inconsistent rotation. With a 15-9 record, he isn't overpowering, but the Twins don't need him to be. What they do need is to get 21 outs from Baker and their complement of middle relievers so that they can turn the ball over to closer extraordinaire Joe Nathan, who has more saves since 2004 than any pitcher in baseball. Nathan, who was not needed on Sunday and thus will have two days off heading into Tuesday's game, normally forces teams to beat the Twins in the first eight innings. On Sunday, the Tigers will have to do so in the first seven.
If all signs point to the Twins winning on Tuesday, then all signs for why this game is being played at all must point to the Tigers. The Twins have been impressive down the stretch, but they would not be here had the Tigers not gagged away a seemingly insurmountable lead. After beating the Rays in Tampa Bay to complete a three-game sweep on September 6, the Tigers held a seven-game lead in the AL Central with just 26 games remaining. Had they played just .500 ball the rest of the way, they would have forced the Twins to go 20-6 to catch them, a winning percentage of .769 for a team that through their first 126 games had won exactly as many games as they had lost. The website coolstandings.com gave the Twins a 6.3 percent chance of winning the division, while the front-running Tigers rated a 91.2, higher than both the first-place Angels and Dodgers, both of whom have since managed to do what the Tigers could not: win their division in the prescribed 162 games.
And now, it looks increasingly likely that even with 163 games, the Tigers won't win their division at all.