What seemed like an easy afternoon for the Tigers to push to a season-high three games over .500 instead became a day for an opportunistic Twins comeback. Minnesota garnered a run in both the seventh and eighth innings to creep within striking distance in the ninth. Three hits off closer Todd Jones and a Matt Joyce error provided the opening to erase what was left of Detroit's lead, before Justin Morneau's 11th-inning solo homer gave Minnesota a lead it wouldn't relinquish.
"Roller coaster," Joyce said to describe his day. "An absolute roller coaster. And that's how this game goes."
Nobody had more of a wild ride in this one than Joyce. Hours earlier, his two-run homer Wednesday night drew the Tigers even with the Indians before Miguel Cabrera ended it. Joyce struck again on Thursday with a solo homer that sparked a five-run fourth inning and built a 6-2 lead. Five innings later, his attempt to set up a play at third and halt the Twins' rally instead set up the tying run.
In between, a series of missed opportunities at the plate from the Tigers' offense in general, not to mention extra runs in the field, put the Twins in position to need just one mistake.
"It was really a combination," manager Jim Leyland said. "We didn't add on runs, and we didn't hold a lead. We had our shots."
On Wednesday, it was Casey Fossum's ability to escape a bases-loaded jam one inning, then strand runners at the corners with one run scored in the next, that kept the Tigers in the game. This time, Detroit had the chance to put a game away, having put together two singles and two walks in the fifth. After Marcus Thames was caught stealing at third base for the second out, the club came away empty when reliever Craig Breslow struck out Curtis Granderson.
The Tigers managed one baserunner in three innings after that. By the time they mounted another offensive threat, the game was tied in the ninth.
The lead was down to 6-4 when Jones took the mound in the top of that inning looking for the save, and Nick Punto's leadoff single brought the tying run to the plate.
"I could tell when Punto took the 3-1 pitch, he wasn't trying to do too much," Jones said. "He was just trying to get on base."
After Jones' seven-pitch at-bat with Punto, Denard Span lined the first pitch he saw into right field. Joyce saw Punto rounding second and sensed the chance to get him at third, so he charged the ball to ready for a throw.
"I thought about throwing to third, and I caught [the ball] in between hops," Joyce said. "I probably was a little bit overaggressive."
Neither Leyland nor the coaches will fault Joyce for an aggressive mistake like that. Still, as Joyce looked back and saw the ball rolling away, it was the complete opposite feeling from his elation after Wednesday's homer.
"That was the longest run," Joyce said. "I just had a picture of a dog running with its tail between its legs. It was a pretty good day up until that one, and then it changed dramatically."
From there, Jones had pinch-hitter Joe Mauer in an 0-2 hole, but Mauer fouled off a fastball and took a couple sliders in before getting enough of an elevated fastball to line to left for the game-tying sacrifice fly.
Even after that, the Tigers seemed poised to overcome the blown lead minutes later during one of the wilder outings Detroit has seen from Joe Nathan in his tenure as Minnesota's closer. Back-to-back walks to Carlos Guillen and Cabrera put the potential winning run in scoring position with nobody out. Joyce, who has three sacrifice bunts in his professional career, couldn't advance the runners, but they moved up anyway when Nathan's 0-1 pitch to Clete Thomas went to the backstop.
Nathan intentionally walked Thomas to set up a double play or force, but he didn't need it. Instead, Nathan fanned Jeff Larish on three fastballs before getting Ivan Rodriguez to chase a high heater to end the threat, adding three runners to Detroit's total of 12 left on base.
Unlike last Sunday's 15-inning win at Seattle, there was no bullpen depth advantage for Detroit to exploit. Matt Guerrier (5-4) nearly tossed two perfect innings until Joyce's two-out double in the 11th, then shrugged it off to drop a curveball on Thomas for a called third strike.
Morneau's 14th home run of the year came off Freddy Dolsi (1-3) during his third inning of work in the top of the 11th. The Twins ran off with their lead over the Tigers stretched to 4 1/2 games for second place in the Central. Detroit walked off with the pseudo-holiday blues.
"They kept battling, kept grinding and came at us," Joyce said. "We couldn't put anything together after we scored the six runs. We were coasting a little bit going into the later innings, and we really needed to put on a couple more and put it out of reach. We didn't. We thought we were going to come out of it with a win, and a couple bad things happened and we saw the result."