MINNEAPOLIS – Ryan Doumit gave them something to cheer for.
An inning later, Denard Span gave them a chance.
But Ben Revere, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau could not deliver, the ultimate frustration after the most promising of hopes.
The chances were there for the stars to be heroes, but in Saturday’s 6-4 loss to the Tigers, Doumit’s eighth-inning grand slam was just theatrics, an opportunity but nothing more.
On Saturday, at times it seemed like there would be no chance. It was a tale of two games, almost: innings one through seven and then eight and nine, when suddenly both teams could hit and neither could locate its pitches.
Until the eighth inning, the game was a pitchers’ duel, somewhat surprisingly. With Justin Verlander on the mound, it’s easy to expect one-sided baseball and the Tigers in complete control, especially at this point in the season, with a playoff berth and multiple awards on the line. But the Twins and starter P.J. Walters held their own, carrying just a 2-0 deficit through seven innings.
Verlander is the kind of pitcher a team needs to get to early, before his pitches speed up and his rhythm is nearly impossible to interrupt. On Saturday, that seemed impossible, due to some combination of stale bats and perhaps even mother nature, in the form of blinding shadows that even prevented Ron Gardenhire from correctly reading pitches from the Twins’ dugout.
“They were terrible,” Doumit said of the shadows. “I don’t know why we played a three o’clock game today, but you could tell the first couple innings on both sides, guys weren’t taking very good swings because you can’t see. Whatever. All that’s out of my hands, but it’s terrible.”
Even so, the shadows must recede. Verlander can only go so long, even if it is much longer than nearly ever other pitcher in the game, and perhaps the Twins must even still feel the push of pride and motivation this late in a disappointing season.
So the rollercoaster began. It took two Tigers swings in the top of the eighth inning, a three-run home run by Miguel Cabrera and a solo shot by Andy Dirks, for the game to seem out of reach for the Twins, down 6-0. They’d had nothing on offense and even struggles on defense, including a Trevor Plouffe throw that arced over Justin Morneau’s head at first base.
With records and expectations coloring expectations, it seemed over. But 117 pitches was enough for even the Tigers’ ace. Just minutes after the lead was in place, Verlander was gone, and without him, just as they had been on Friday night, the Tigers were utterly fallible.
First, an error that put Denard Span at second base to begin the eighth. Then a walk. Then another. Then the potential for a grand slam, and then the grand slam itself, by Doumit, a recent power threat who’s batted .314 against the Tigers this season.
“We bounced back, and we even had a chance,” Gardenhire said. “We had the tying run at the plate there in the last inning. They kept playing, kept getting after it. That’s what you ask for. Just a little frustrating there.”
The grand slam was icing on Doumit’s season, which has already been the most productive of his eight-year career. After playing his first seven seasons as a backup in Pittsburgh, Doumit signed with the Twins this offseason. He’s a backup in Minnesota, too, but there’s really no better place to be the second string behind the plate. Joe Mauer can’t catch everyday, and with the designated hitter as an option, Doumit has taken full advantage of this new opportunity.
A career .271 hitter in the National League, Doumit is batting .277 through Saturday in his first American League season. He’s played in 133 of the Twins’ 158 games so far, already nine games more than his career high in 2010 with the Pirates. And it’s not as if he’s just being handed this opportunity. He’s earned it. His average might only be the second-best of his career, but he’s never before made it to 18 home runs or 75 RBI, his totals thus far in 2012.
Despite those numbers, which are impressive for a backup, Doumit had been in something of a stale patch recently. His average climbed as high as .297 on Aug. 14 before creeping downward to its second-half low point of .273 on Sept. 23. Before Wednesday, he hadn’t had a multi-hit game since Sept. 5, and the catcher seemed poised to end his successful season on a downward trend.
Not anymore. On Friday, he hit a two-run home run in the seventh inning to give the Twins their first runs of the night, runs which were ultimately the difference in the 4-2 win. And then there was Saturday’s grand slam, which ended up for naught but was still thrilling.
“I try not to read too much into it,” Doumit said. “It’s just been a good couple days. You know, today was too little, too late.”
“We certainly believe in what we’ve got here. Even if it is a Justin Verlander out there, we believe in our offense. We believe we can put up runs against anybody. We get down early, we’re confident we can scratch back.”
It didn’t work for the Twins on Saturday, but in a way it’s worked for Doumit here at the end of the season, as he’s seemed poised to end the season on a high note. And after the role he’s created for himself in Minnesota this year, that’s the best kind of reward. Timing is everything, and even if the grand slam wasn’t at the right moment, his own ending could be.