Mackey: Jesse Crain's haymaker may have sealed Chicago's fate
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A five-run eighth inning propelled the Minnesota Twins to a back-breaking, 9-3 victory over the Chicago White Sox on Tuesday night, but a marvelous effort by Jesse Crain provided the staggering blow.
Mind you, not just a blow to Chicago's chances on Tuesday night. A haymaker to their playoff hopes.
With the Twins leading 4-3 in the bottom of the seventh, Matt Guerrier came in to relieve Francisco Liriano, who completed six innings -- laboring mightily in the final two -- while allowing three earned runs on seven hits, three walks and seven strikeouts. Guerrier gave up back-to-back singles to Gordon Beckham and Juan Pierre, putting runners on first and second with nobody out.
Manager Ron Gardenhire then summoned Crain, his best relief pitcher.
As expected, Alexei Ramirez dropped down a sacrifice bunt to put runners on second and third with one out for the heart of Chicago's order -- Alex Rios, Paul Konerko and Manny Ramirez.
Rios followed by coaxing a full-count walk -- albeit the last two pitches, both called balls, showed up as strikes according to MLB.com's Gameday zone -- which loaded the bases with one out for the big boppers.
Konerko, hitting .322/.399/.598 with 36 homers heading into Tuesday, is a legitimate MVP candidate who is having a career season. Ramirez has yet to tally an extra-base hit since joining the White Sox on August 31, but he was still hitting .305/.404/.472 heading into Tuesday, and he's one of the greatest hitters of all time.
In terms of high-leverage situations, this was about as stressful as they come.
Crain -- composed, calculated, and any other adjective completely opposite from those used to describe his perceived demeanor in April -- mixed and matched fastballs and sliders to Konerko before blowing him away with a 97-mph heater -- the fifth consecutive time Crain has fanned the White Sox first baseman.
The mohawk-wielding righty then induced a noodle-armed swing from Ramirez on a filthy, 87-mph slider to end the inning, bringing out the boo birds at U.S. Cellular Field.
The Twins -- now sitting atop the American League Central by a season-high seven games -- went on to break the game open with five runs off Matt Thornton and J.J. Putz in the top of the eighth inning, but Crain's mop-up job was the first nail in Chicago's coffin.
Crain has solidified himself as one of the best relief pitchers in baseball this season. Since the middle of June, he has allowed just three earned runs (0.73 ERA) on 17 hits and 14 walks to go along with 38 strikeouts. Over that stretch, opponents have an OPS of just over .400 against Crain.
His fastball consistently paints the corners at 95 mph, and his slider is nearly untouchable.
The potential for dominance has been there for six years, and he has shown extended flashes in the past. But Tuesday night's performance by Crain in a potential season-altering spot showed exactly why Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson have shown so much patience over the last two years.
The Twins' magic number after Tuesday's victory is now 12 games, and the White Sox, in all likelihood, have fallen out of the race without any meaningful contributions from Ramirez. The Twins can say the same about Brian Fuentes, who pitched a scoreless eighth and at least fanned Seattle's Russell Branyan to seal a game back in August.
The difference, of course, is the former Angel will have a chance to contribute in the postseason.
Or so it appears.
Manny will not.