MINNEAPOLIS -- Torii Hunter tipped his hat, fought the tears, and hoped for the best: a new contract with Minnesota.
The reality, though, is Hunter's return is in serious question, and Twins fans showed up to cheer for him maybe one last time.
Kevin Slowey pitched seven strong innings in a 7-1 victory Sunday over the Chicago White Sox, helping Hunter go out a winner in what might have been his last home game for Minnesota.
Just before the top of the ninth inning began, manager Ron Gardenhire sent Jason Tyner in for Hunter to let the popular All-Star center fielder acknowledge the crowd while he jogged off. Teammate Michael Cuddyer told him not to cry, but Hunter was overwhelmed by the time he reached the dugout.
"There was so much love out there today," said Hunter, who went 1-for-3 and scored twice.
The 32-year-old, who was drafted by the Twins in the first round at age 17, was having a hard time thinking about leaving all the people he's met here.
"Everybody was telling me, 'Good luck, God bless,' like I was retiring or something," Hunter said.
An announced crowd of 29,382 came inside on a sublime autumn afternoon for a game between two eliminated teams, with perhaps the last chance to watch Hunter in a Minnesota uniform the main attraction.
The Twins play the final week of the season on the road, and Hunter becomes a free agent after the World Series. He's making $12 million this year. With a .290 average, 28 homers, a career-high 104 RBI and Gold Glove defense, his market price might be too much for the team's tight budget.
There were a handful of homemade banners in his honor held by the fans sitting behind the wall where he has taken away so many homers with leaping catches. One of them read, "If you sign him, we will come."
Gardenhire refused to concede.
"We're going to do everything we can," Gardenhire said. "As much as these fans love this young man, I think that's going to go a long ways in the decision to keep him here. I think he should be a Minnesota Twin for the rest of his life. That's my opinion. I don't open the checkbook, but that's my opinion."
The White Sox are one of the teams who might make a run at Hunter. Though manager Ozzie Guillen prompted a round of boos when Hunter was intentionally walked in his last at-bat, the visitors offered their own respect to a player who has become one of their biggest rivals in recent years.
"I wouldn't expect anything else. He deserves it," first baseman Darin Erstad said, reflecting on several standing ovations Hunter received throughout the series.
Slowey (4-0) struck out a career-high nine batters, staying unbeaten and earning his first win since June 30. This was his 10th start, and he reduced his ERA to 4.57 after allowing four hits and one run without a walk.
The day after a pair of pitchers competing for spots in Minnesota's 2008 rotation flopped, Slowey -- another right-handed candidate -- put on a good show. He turned in a second straight solid start, while Scott Baker and Boof Bonser have struggled through September.
"I was impressed. He had a good, hard fastball on both sides of the plate. He looked like a quality major league pitcher," Chicago's Paul Konerko said.
White Sox starter Gavin Floyd (1-5) also was auditioning for next year. Garrett Jones hit his first career homer, and Michael Cuddyer drove in four runs -- two of them on a bases-loaded single that broke a 1-1 tie in the sixth.
The Twins had four hits in that inning, the first time they've done that in one frame since Sept. 8 -- a span of 117 innings. In his ninth start this season, Floyd established a career high with seven strikeouts but allowed seven hits, four runs and three walks in 5 2/3 innings.
"He showed me a lot of great stuff," Guillen said. "He's got one more outing, and hopefully he continues to throw the ball like that."
Hunter didn't have any highlight-reel plays in the field. In fact, he stretched out for a sinking line drive by Josh Fields in the third inning and let the ball bounce off the palm of his glove. He accidentally kicked the ball on the way down, pushing it toward Cuddyer in right and allowing Fields to get a triple.
But nobody was going to remember that, especially Hunter -- who admitted to lying awake several times this month, staring at the ceiling and pondering his future.
"Hopefully we can get something done," he said, "but if they're going in another direction then there's nothing that can be done."
One of Baker's young sons is sick, and the Twins aren't certain if he'll return to the team in time to make his last scheduled start on Thursday at Boston. If he's not back, Gardenhire said Bonser would replace him despite Saturday's ugly performance. ... The White Sox have not decided who will start for them on Thursday, either, but Mark Buehrle will be skipped in favor of a prospect, either Lance Broadway or Heath Phillips.