MINNEAPOLIS - Nick Punto’s voice was hoarse and he strained to describe how the Minnesota Twins have rallied from seven games down in less than a month to push the AL Central race to the final day.
“It’s been Game 7 for the last two weeks,” Punto croaked.
And, thanks in large part to Michael Cuddyer, for one more day.
Cuddyer hit a solo home run in the eighth inning, lifting the Twins to a thrilling 5-4 victory over the Kansas City Royals on Saturday that moved them into a tie with first-place Detroit.
“This is what it’s all about,” Cuddyer said. “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 Tigers lost 5-1 to the Chicago White Sox. Sunday is the final day of the regular season.
Joe Mauer delivered his biggest hit in an MVP-caliber season, a two-out single off Cy Young candidate Zack Greinke that broke a scoreless tie in the sixth. Delmon Young added a three-run double later in the inning for a 4-0 lead.
After the Twins bullpen let the Royals tie it, Cuddyer hit his 31st homer of the season off Dusty Hughes (0-2).
“What we’ve done and the run we’ve had up to this point has been pretty special,” said manager Ron Gardenhire, whose Twins have won 15 of 19 to surge back into contention. “These guys really have just huge hearts out there.”
Former AL MVP Justin Morneau was shelved for the season by the Twins on Sept. 12 because of a back injury. Cuddyer moved from right field to first base to fill in and has responded by hitting .352 with seven homers and 22 RBIs in 19 games since.
Greinke has been on an even more impressive tear, entering the game with a 0.43 ERA over his previous six starts.
He didn’t allow a hit through three innings, but was outpitched by Nick Blackburn, who was perfect through four innings and allowed two runs on four hits in seven innings.
Jon Rauch (5-1) went one inning for the win and Joe Nathan got a brilliant diving catch from Denard Span in right field to help him pick up his 47th save.
“Nothing amazes me anymore,” Gardenhire said. “I take that back, this team amazes me because of the courage they’re showing.”
Greinke definitely sensed the gravity of the game. He took plenty of time between each pitch, making sure he was comfortable and ready to deliver, as if a playoff berth was hanging on every delivery.
For the Twins, it was.
Mauer came to the plate in the sixth inning with Punto on third base and two outs — the AL’s best hitter against the league’s best pitcher with so much on the line.
“It was Cy Young against MVP,” Cuddyer said. “That makes for great drama.”
Just as he did in the previous two at-bats, Greinke went right after Mauer with two straight 95 mph heaters to get ahead 0-2. Mauer fouled off a slider and then took another one low before ripping a 94 mph fastball into right field for a 1-0 lead.
“That’s what everyone wanted to see,” Mauer said. “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.”
Greinke came a little unglued after the showdown with Mauer, giving up a double to Jason Kubel and hitting Cuddyer before Young’s opposite-field double cleared the bases for a 4-0 lead.
“I think what happened was, they did such a bad job of hitting my fastball the first five innings, that I started to think that they weren’t going to hit it,” Greinke said. “And then that last inning, Mauer hit a fastball. Kubel hit a fastball. Delmon Young hit a fastball. Just maybe got a little overconfident with it.”
Greinke’s ERA rose from 2.06 to 2.16, the first time in seven starts that number has increased. But the Royals offense finally gave him some run support to avoid his first loss since Aug. 19.
Mike Jacobs responded with a homer and Alex Gordon added a two-run shot off Jose Mijares in Kansas City’s three-run eighth to tie the game.
But Cuddyer came through in the eighth, ensuring that the final regular-season game in the Metrodome on Sunday will be a memorable one.
“It’s like deja vu,” Punto said.
The Twins will move outdoors to Target Field next season, but they’re not ready to leave quite yet.
“They’re the only team I’ve faced over the years that can actually, they elevate their game when the pressure is on the line,” Greinke said. “Most teams either stay the same or get tight and try to do more than they can do.”
NOTES: If the Tigers and Twins are tied after Sunday, the playoff game would be held at 4 p.m. Central time on Tuesday and broadcast on TBS. ... Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said veteran Carl Pavano will pitch on three days’ rest Sunday against Luke Hochevar. ... Royals SS Yuniesky Betancourt got the day off with a bruised quad muscle. Luis Hernandez filled in.
ATLANTA (AP) - Matt Harvey pitched six hitless innings, John Buck homered and the New York Mets held off another Atlanta comeback, beating the Braves 4-3 Tuesday in the first game of a doubleheader.
Taking a look at some of the greatest catchers off all time.